Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Is That MegaPurple, Or Are You Just Happy to See Me?

There is one important way that wine is like food—the cheaper it is, the more manipulated it is. But that’s the way we like it. Americans don’t like surprises. This explains 9-11. And condoms. When we buy a bottle of cheap wine, we don’t care about the vintage or the appellation, we just care that it tastes like it did the last time we bought it, five years ago. Just like we want McDonald’s french fries to always taste like salty cardboard regardless of where in the world we’re eating them. If they taste like potatoes, they’re disgusting. If cheap wine tasted like quality wine, that would be a horrible mistake. All that character getting in the way of the alcohol? That seems pointless. Winemakers understand this, and go to great lengths to manipulate those inexpensive wines into tasting as unobtrusive and bland as possible. How do they do this? They add stuff. Same as they do to cheap food.

There are many wine blogs devoted to “Great Wines Under $20.” Let’s get something straight. There are no great wines under $20. There are fools who think there are, but, for God’s sake, don’t believe them. The wines they recommend are not, never have been, and never will be, Great Wines any more than the new James Patterson piece of shit is a Great Book. So shut the hell up about “Great Wines Under $20.” Cheap and easy to understand doesn’t equate to great. If it did, my idiot cousin would be on Mount Rushmore. It demeans the hard work of the great vintners of the world to refer to cheapass, manipulated wines as “Great.” Even if you need to feel good about drinking Great Wines Under $20 all the time, and not knowing the difference, you don’t need to insult the truly great wines of the world, or the intelligence of your readers. What’s wrong with “Wines I Like Under $20?” We know you’re an idiot, and can take that into account. “Great Wines Under $20,” for fuck’s sake. That’s like shopping on Craig’s List for Bargain Plastic Surgery. It’s cheap dick enhancement.

I know, most of you believe in the “romance” of wine, the compost heap that marketing departments sell under the guise of “telling the winery’s story.”

We lovingly tend our beautiful and historic vineyards, coaxing the best out of them. We hire happy little brown people who sing and prance as they harvest the precious grapes. We don’t know where these little brown people come from, they just magically appear each year, despite the gunfire. Each cluster is praised and admired as we prepare it to meet its maker. Gently crushed, like your teenage daughter’s heart, it transforms itself, under our ever-watchful eyes, into Great Wine, which we bottle and reluctantly sell to our friends. We are mere stewards of the land, and too humble to intervene in this mystical process of transformation. We don’t make our wines, our wines make us.

Yup, and California cheese comes from contented cows. Why are they content? Their farts are causing climate change and killing humans, that’s why. Damned bovines.

Let’s take a brief look at some of the more popular wine additives, and what they add to wine.

Gum Arabic
Gum Arabic, which is made from the sap of two species of Acacia tree, so it’s tree bodily fluid, is added to wines to enhance texture. As an alternative, many wineries in Lodi add Maple syrup to their Zinfandels in order to receive high scores from Mrs. Butterworth, who writes under the name Natalie MacLean.

Most wines that are referred to as being “silky” can attribute that quality to just a splash of WD-40 added right before bottling. Many inexpensive Priorats can repair rusty locks. Pouring Apothic down your pants can unstick your zipper. This is a little celebrated quality of manipulated silky wines, but one you should explore.  No tool kit is complete without a bottle of Kim Crawford Sauvignon Blanc.

Often added to German Riesling, it helps with mileage. As they say in Germany, there’s no fuel like and old fuel. Or sometimes, petrol for one, and one for all. Germans are hilarious.

Copper Sulfate
Small amounts of copper sulfate may be added to a wine in order to remove hydrogen sulfides, which cause wine to smell like rotten eggs. Copper sulfate in sufficient quantity is poisonous to humans, but no more so than Sarah Palin, who, unsurprisingly, is also redolent of very old eggs. But don’t worry about copper sulfate specifically, wine is filled with poison. It’s called alcohol. Luckily, the antidote is readily available, and involves driving home.

Powdered Tannin
Powdered tannin is sometimes added to red wine to help fix color and add grip. Sadly, Michael Jackson tried this and, well, you know the result. He obviously lost his grip. The same additive is occasionally used on donuts, which then go great with Barolo.

James Earl Jones Voiceover
Often added to make an expensive wine seem classier. Cheaper wines use a high dosage of Morgan Freeman. Adding voiceovers is technically illegal in Europe, though they do allow the use of ventriloquists.

MegaPurple is a grape concentrate made from the hybrid grape Rubired. Manufactured by the wine conglomerate Constellation, it’s often added to red wine in order to ruin it. A single drop, however, is said to make any orange wine significantly better—bang, it’s even more orange! MegaPurple is also a common substitute for Viagra. If after consuming a glass of The Prisoner your erection lasts for more than four hours, consult a sommelier. That’ll make anyone go flaccid.


Charlie Olken said...

Heard of a new one, to me at least, the other day. OAK FLOUR.

I guess you use it before adding yeast.

wine man boy said...

If you're drinking a Sangiovese the colour of a moonless knight, you're knot drinking Sangiovese.

David Pierson said...

Fun stuff Ron.. but when are we gonna hear from Lo on your Poodle win..

Marcia Macomber said...

Rimshot for Charlie today!

Loved the Mrs. Buttersworth/Nat thing. Perfect.

But my favorite was the dosage of James Earl Jones voiceover! The side of Morgan Freeman doing the 'lesser' wine voiceovers was spot on. There was a time Kathleen Turner could have gotten the voiceover job for all those Bitch wines, but alas, that day has passed. (Elaine Stritch [RIP] would have been magnificent doing a wine voiceover.)

tercero wines said...

If you really want to have fun, just open a Scott Labs or Enartis catalog one day to see the types of products winemakers 'can' use - does not imply that any do, but these are all the things that are available and legal to add.

Of course, this does NOT include other things such as liquid oak (no joke, I've personally seen it used), and all of the 'technologies' out there that allow you to pick grapes when they truly are raisins, ferment them to dryness and 18%+ alcohol with high VA, then 'reverse' all of these and make a 'beautifully balanced' red wine.

And let's not fool ourselves to think that these things are only being used for 'value' wines please . . .


Stillman Brown said...

Biodynamic Velcorin.
You can't taste it unless the moon's full.

Daniel said... great wine under $20 the same as $1 Chinese "food" from the mini mart?

if it doesn't kill you, then you just haven't had enough.

gabriel jagle said...

some winemakers like to adjust the pH by adding acid to their wine, although that was much more popular in the 60's.

Thomas said...

Gabe, I'd be a little leary about doing that.

Bob Henry (Los Angeles wine industry professional) said...

Regarding your slap at McDonald's, they were the subject of a financial analysis column this week in The Wall Street Journal.

[Sorry, Ron's Rules of Order: no links.]

This salient quote that caught my eye:

"A recent Consumer Reports survey of 32,000 diners at 65 chains proclaimed McDonald's as having the WORST-tasting burgers."

Bob Henry (Los Angeles wine industry professional) said...


Add to your list one chemical additive in short supply this California wine grape growing and harvest season: dihydrogen monoxide (DHMO).

Nasty stuff.

~~ Bob

Charlie Olken said...

dihydrogen monoxide?

Yes, but is it natural?

Charlie Olken said...

Does it come from the source or the tap?

Has it been filter by paper or by rocks?

If you add an oxygen molecule, can you use it to make bombs--or is that an extra hydrogen molecule?

Bob Henry (Los Angeles wine industry professional) said...



I just inadvertently drink the stuff.

I don't cogitate or ruminate over it . . . that steals time away from serious drinking!

And as the late Len Evans taught in his "Theory of Capacity" [*], we only have so much time remaining on this blue globe for that.

~~ Bob

[* In the immortal words of Tom Lehrer: "The rest of you can look it up when you get home." Start here with your Google key word search: new york times+frank prial+wine talk+len evans+theory of capacity ]

The Sommeliere said...

Ron darling, you left a few additives/processes out:

Malic acid
Tartaric acid
Silicon dioxide
Aluminum silicates (bentonite or kaolin)


Distilled alcohol -- used to fortify alcohol levels in wine.





Yeast cell walls

Fumaric acid

Potassium caseinate

Sturgeon bladder, fish skin, isinglass --used to clarify wine / remove sediment.

Egg whites, Seaweed, Clay used for fining

Milk/lactalbumin -
Potassium carbonate

Potassium bicarbonate
Calcium carbonate

Copper sulfate

Oak chips



Sulfur dioxide
Dimethyl dicarbonate
Potassium metabisulphite
Potassium sorbate

Potassium bitartrate

The one that creeps me out the most is the fish bladder...does that include fish pee?

Charlie Olken said...

Dear Madame Rossman--

You got something against sturgeon? It is not some cheap fish like hake for goodness sake, and, when smoked, it is even better.

Mmm. Smoked sturgeon bladder. Makes my mouth water.

Thomas said...

Is the bladder any better than where sturgeon roe resides before it's packaged?

Bob Henry (Los Angeles wine industry professional) said...

Dear "The Sommeliere":

Your comment is taking on the modern-day wine equivalent of Tom Lehrer's "The Elements" song.

[Yes, you can hear it on YouTube.]

~~ Bob

Bob Henry (Los Angeles wine industry professional) said...

Okay, twist my arm.

Here's the link:

[Sorry, Ron!]

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Hey Common Taters,
Thanks for all the wit and commentary. I've always had the best common taters in the wine blog world.

David, I haven't really been in touch with Lo lately, but I think she's stewing over the blogs that won. She may be heard from soon. I miss her, too.

Wine is wine. It's manipulated. We're human, it's what we do. But, as Marlene suggests, if the average wine buyer understood how many ingredients and high-tech machines were involved in their beloved Trader Joe's "artisan" wines, they would be shocked. It's a "60 Minutes" piece.

My simple premise was that in our wildest imaginations, we often cannot imagine what's done to the crap we put into our bodies--and I'm just talking about mouths. Then I tried to contrast a bit of a rant in the first few paragraphs with stupid one-liners the rest of the way.

It's comic, however, the debate between natural wine and whatever other kind of wine that's left. Humans are poorly equipped to understand their relatively inadequate senses to begin with. It's a kind of egotism to exclaim that you find Natural Wines better, as though you're a more sensitive and intuitive and wondrous human than the guy who just likes a bottle of decent wine. There's a lot of hubris surrounding the concept, which is, of course, the human condition. Is Natural Wine superior? Who gives a rat's ass, or a fish's bladder? What's important to Natural Wine advocates is their sense of being on a mission, like a Jehovah's Witness, or a guy who thinks the Grateful Dead was a great band. When all is said and done, they're right for themselves, but usually dead wrong for the rest of the world.

Alessandro Lunardi said...

Priceless ... and true!

Beau said...

I add liquid complexity to my wines. Then spin stories about terroir and "minimal interventionist" winemaking. Gets 'em every time.

Dave McIntyre said...

Ron - I agree with you that most cheap wine (especially cheap US wine) is industrially produced crap, probably made with a lot of the additives you describe (and others). However, you do a disservice to writers who focus on cheap wine. The fact of the matter is, most Americans pay only about $7 for 750 ml of wine. Writers who emphasize this level are trying to find the few wines that are worth drinking and writing about. They should be applauded for tasting a lot of awful wine to find a few worth seeking out.

After all, they could easily sell out to the blandishments of the eager PR reps and their samples of $50+ Napa cabernets, most of which are probably made with the same additives/manipulations.

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Thank you for commenting. I think we agree. My point isn't that wines under $20 can't deliver pleasure and satisfaction, it's that they are not "great wines." James Patterson crapola might deliver some fun and distraction, but no one mistakes it for literature.

And, yes, there are countless wines that are expensive and drastically manipulated within an inch of their vinous lives. Those are not "great wines" either.

The vast majority of the wines sold in the US are under $15, absolutely. That's because at that level, wine is about alcohol, not terroir or greatness. You, and others, Charlie included, do a great service steering people to wines that deliver a decent amount of pleasure and varietal character at those price points. But only a fool, and you're clearly not a fool, would call those "great wines." So we basically agree. Only I write satire, and you write for the unwashed masses who trust your opinions about inexpensive alternatives to Great Wines--wines I can't afford, but have tasted often.

The common title "Great Wines Under Some Amount" is marketing crap, and we all know it. The real title is "Wines that Taste Better Than You'd Expect for Some Amount." But that doesn't generate readership, sales, advertising or interest. None of which I have either.

Charlie Olken said...

Well, if we must get serious, back in my days of writing the "Tasting Notes" column for the Los Angeles Times, there was a rule--no wines over $25. I broke that rule often because there are great wines in this world, and while most of us do not drink them regularly or on our own nickel, we do sometimes get to taste them. But more than that, the $15 to $35 wine price point is as much driven by the standards set by the triple digit brands as it is by anything else.

My neighbors, who fit the mid-priced drinkers profile, may not buy Merry Edwards Pinot but they know that Pinot is of a family and that the good ones in their price range are entirely good, not just cheap alcohol. And they expect those midpriced wines to be reasonable approximations of the high priced spreads.

But here is where I disagree with the direction of "all additives and manipulation" is the work of the devil. The only way to judge wine is by taste, and secondarily by whether it will do you harm or do harm to the planet. Absent those secondary criteria, wine criticism should not be about whose wine has been watered down, been put through reverse osmosis, been acidulated, had a dash of Syrah added, used other than indigenous yeast, etc.

My top of the comments list note about Oak Flour is real. It was used extensively in 2011 to drag green characteristics out of Napa Cabs. What do I care? The wines have been improved by that action just as sous vide and garlic improves many food stuffs.

Bring on the additives--if they are not going to kill any of us--as long as they make the wine better.

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Puff Daddy,
Of course, the wines that were under $25 when you were writing for the LA Times are now $40-$50 wines, but that's not your point.

I think both sides of the debate are lying, but I fancy myself a satirist, so, of course that's what I think. Winery marketing departments lie repeatedly and knowingly about how wines are made. Many winemakers will tell wine writers (and bloggers, aka wine typers) whatever they think they want to hear. It's been a part of the business for as long as I can remember. As much as we want wine to be artisanal, it almost always ends up a commodity.

I have long felt that the Natural Wine movement grew out of our shame in having ruined the planet for our children and future generations. Even if those Natural Wines are faulty (and not all of them are, though they seem to be faulty in a greater ratio than other wines), we convince ourselves they're OK because the guy who made them is in touch with the Earth, and that makes us better people for supporting him. I've met lots of winemakers--the guys making Natural Wine are no better or worse as human beings. They're chasing some ideal of wine just as I chase trying to write something that's actually funny. Good for them. That they have groupies, well, chase an ideal and you always get groupies. Natural Wine or Charles Manson, the groupies show up and tell you you're a Messiah.

How wine is made is clearly a choice, or a series of choices. That, by definition, makes every wine manipulated. Hey, wine changes our body chemistry, why shouldn't we change its? I do think it's sort of sad that a government agency decides what can or can't be added to wine, but that ship sailed long ago. If I can tell at first sip that a wine was severely tampered with, I don't like it. That takes all the romance out of wine when you can tell the wine was acidulated, or MegaPurple is part of its DNA, or the alcohol doesn't fit the apparent ripeness of the fruit. And I like romance. And, like you, I like my wine to taste good.

Maybe ingredient lists on wine isn't such a bad idea. Anything that takes everyone's eyes off their fucking iPhones is fine with me.

The Sommeliere said...

Ron, Hear Hear!

gabriel jagle said...

The difference between a natural winemaker and a conventional winemaker is roughly two tough vintages.

Unknown said...

Robert Parker: Jancis never told you what happened to your father.

Ron Washam: She told me enough! She told me you killed him!

Robert Parker: No. I am your father.


Dale Dimas said...

I'm going to admit that I don't ever get all the references and in-jokes, but I get enough, and I enjoy your writing, Ron. I would grant you the "fearless" moniker in your satire. (Oh, and the fact that Sam loves you is really pretty much enough of a recommendation all on its own.)

So, I know that it may ruin many of the jokes when you have to explain them, but I must say, that this column when read with your first comment where you were "explaining" your intent and what set you on your way, made this so much better--for me, at least.

And then the fairly serious conversation that was engaged in, which, I believe, is the real point of most of your columns...hey, think about this for a minute, wouldya?

Enjoyed the read and enjoyed the thread. My thanks to you and your "common taters."

Ron Washam, HMW said...

I learned a long time ago as a writer never to talk down to my audience. No one is going to "get" every joke or reference, and that includes me. But I never know which jokes will reverberate with each individual, so I don't worry about it. If you get a single laugh from the piece, I guess that's enough.

I think I've mentioned before that I use the comments section to remind my future self why I bothered writing a piece. I often forget what was bugging me enough to start me writing, especially a few years down the road. As it turns out, some people are like you, Dale, and find that explanation of motivation enlightening or interesting. I do it more as a diary.

The serious conversation is a tribute to the smart common taters who, for some inexplicable reason, hang around HoseMaster. Humor and satire are great fuel for conversation because they reflect a skewed view of things, a comic prism that shows subjects in odd, unpredictable light. My intent is rarely reflected in the conversation, it just triggers it. My intent, of course, is simply to make people laugh at such an inherently meaningless subject.

Thanks for chiming in, Dale. Give my love to Samantha. I know I do.