Nutrition Facts — part 2 of the rant

There is a big push to add nutrition information to wine labels. It may surprise you to learn that some of the biggest wine producers are pushing the hardest to require such information on labels.

We are all for information, not to mention transparency. But that is not what this is about. This is about the compliance costs for smaller producers. The bigger producers can absorb those costs easily, and in fact, their label costs will barely budge due to economies of scale and other factors described in part one of this rant.

It is also frustrating that the information found on a nutrition facts label barely pertains to wine. Let’s take a look line by line.
Serving size. This will be interesting. Australia has a definition of “a drink” that is based on alcohol content. So some bottles might contain 4.5 servings while another might contain 8 servings. We’ll see what happens here.
Calories. Assuming the wine is dry, this will scarcely budge from wine to wine, and the influencing factor will be alcohol content. If serving size is determined by alcohol content, calories per serving won’t vary at all (but total calories per bottle will). Not very useful information.
Total Fat. Really? You think there is fat in wine? You will need more than a Nutrition Facts label to help you with that. Seriously, folks, no fat in wine. Got it?
Sodium. Rarely measured in wine now, and surely quite low. This is another way the bigs stick it to the smalls. The incremental cost of sodium analysis will hit small producers much harder than larger ones. Regardless, the number will be very low, under 10 mg/serving for most wines.
Total carbohydrate. This is a tricky one, as a dry wine contains no actual carbohydrates at all. So will all the labels say 0 or will they put in the grams of alcohol (not a true carbohydrate) per serving? This could be interesting for the big producers, too, as they seem much more inclined to leave residual sugar in their products without telling anyone. Once people see that their favorite supermarket wine has 1-3g of sugar per serving, will they stop buying it?
Protein. A laugh. Winegrapes don’t contain much protein. What is there is consumed by the yeast and left with their cells when the wine is racked off the lees. Further, the tannins in red wine bind with and precipitate any protein that might remain. White wines can contain a bit of protein, which is a big concern for winemakers. If that protein gets denatured, by heat for example, it can throw an ugly haze. For that reason most winemakers take steps to remove any protein from white wine before bottling, sometimes by adding tannin to interact with it as in red wines and sometimes by adding Bentonite, a clay that pulls the protein out of solution. That way, if your wine gets cooked in transit, you’ll never be the wiser! (Hey, is that how it should work?)
Vitamins. Nil.
Calcium. Negligible.
Iron. Negligible, or so the winemaker hopes!
Potassium. This will vary a lot. California wines are generally much higher in potassium than those from other regions. Does this matter to you?
Ingredients. The argument over whether to require–or even allow–ingredient listing is taking place separately from the nutrition facts argument, and we’ll look at that in another post.

In sum, if you think you want nutrition facts on a wine label, ask yourself why and what you hope to learn. Chances are you won’t find significant differences among wines. The requirement would impose burdensome costs on small producers and benefit consumers not in the least.

What do you think?

The struggles of small wineries – a tempered rant in two parts

by Matt

There are a number of reasons why small wineries have a harder time of it than larger ones. Most are just the nature of the business. But when the bigger wineries go out of their way to make it harder for us small guys, it gets my hackles up.

Economies of scale are one example of how size matters. When I order labels, the price I pay barely budges whether I buy 1000 pieces or 10000 pieces, so the price per label naturally drops rapidly the more you print. Imagine if your print runs ran to the millions….. Other supplies, too, get cheaper in quantity. Moreover, spending power can lead to further discounts as vendors don’t wish to see those funds go to a competitor. All of this is sensible, even if I don’t particularly like it.

Last year the California Alcoholic Beverage Control commission (ABC) started going after wineries that mentioned restaurants and retailers on their social media accounts. For example, “Restaurant X now has our wine by the glass. Go check it out!” This is a violation of California’s tied-house rules, which state that an alcohol producer cannot give anything of value to a customer other than the alcohol they explicitly purchase. Apparently ABC considers a tweet to have value (a dubious supposition). So many wineries got dinged over this that there was a backlash and the rules were changed somewhat. Producers are now able to tweet about upcoming events at restaurants and retailers as long as they stick to facts (e.g., the date of the event) and not opinions (e.g., the food is great!).

When ABC was asked about the social media crackdown, they explained that they had received complaints and that they have to act upon all complaints they receive. In other words, the crackdown was not the result of an ABC busybody but rather an anonymous tipster who had it in for the smaller brands who don’t have the legal teams and resources to fight back. An anonymous ABC source implied that it was a winery employee who had made all the complaints. I have my guesses about who, but just imagine what kind of winery has enough employees that they can assign one the task of scrolling through endless twitter feeds looking for violations of this obscure rule. That’s right, a big one.

This year it seems something more nefarious is afoot. Take a look at John Hinman’s story here.

Recently, a number of wineries received one-day license suspensions for allegedly allowing consignment sales, which are not allowed under federal rules. Sitting out a day of business might have seemed easier to these small wineries than taking on the expense of contesting the charges. However, as Hinman’s piece explains, the accused may not have understood the consequences of pleading guilty to even a minor charge. Hinman’s law firm represents at least one of the accused, and Hinman makes a strong case that the sales in question were not in fact consignment sales and the charges could likely have been successfully fought.

What is more troubling to me, however, is the fact that TTB charged only small wineries with this violation, when many larger wineries also practice what TTB is calling consignment sales (though they may not be). What’s behind the TTB’s focus on small wineries? I don’t know, but I hope to find out.

I hope that was not too arcane for you. I would love to hear your thoughts. I’ll be back with another way the big wineries are sticking it to the small, and it may surprise you. Can you believe that a push to require nutritional labeling on wine bottles is actually a veiled effort to increase costs for small producers? Stay tuned…..

Grape Varieties — Prologue: Species, varieties, and clones

With grape varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir dominating the markets, the varieties we work with may be unfamiliar to you. Here we will introduce you to the varieties we work with: Viognier, Zinfandel, Petite Sirah, and, coming soon, Grenache. But first, a little background.

What is a grape variety?
With few exceptions, most wine is made from a single species of grapevine, Vitis vinifera L. Wines made from other fruits must so indicate on the label, e.g., blueberry wine, or dandelion wine. In some parts of the United States, winters are too severe for V. vinifera to survive, so other species of grape vine, most of which are indigenous to the US are used. Unfortunately, many of these species, such as V. labrusca (Concord), V. riparia, and Muscadinia Rotundifolia (Muscadine, Scuppernong) produce wines with flavors that many consider off-putting.

Varieties and clones
So, yes, everything from Albariño to Zinfandel–including Cabernet, Chardonnay, etc.–are the same species. The differences among them make each a variety. Note that a wine produced from grapes of single variety can be called (a) varietal. Even within a given variety, differences among grapevines can be detected. Some are minor, such as leaf size. Others can have a relatively large impact on the resulting wine. Pinot noir clone 777, for instance, is known to produce wines with deeper color and more intense tannins than other Pinot noir selections, or clones. Generally speaking, the older a variety, the more diversity its clones will show. Pinot noir and Sangiovese have tremendous diversity among clones, and both are thought to be at least 1000 years old. Cabernet Sauvignon, by contrast, likely resulted from a spontaneous cross between Cabernet franc and Sauvignon blanc in Bordeaux in the mid-18th century. Many Cabernet Sauvignon clones have distinctive characteristics, but not to the same extent as older varieties.

Next up: Viognier


Filtration Explored and Explained

In our recent piece on wine fining, we touched on filtration and promised a more thorough discussion of that topic. Here it is, at last. There are two principal reasons to filter wine, but some consumers are so afraid of filtration that many producers choose not to filter. We will do our best to present the facts and let you draw your own conclusions.

One reason to filter a wine is to improve its appearance. Allowing the wine to settle in barrel or tank is a great way to clarify it, but sometimes the spent yeast and other particles simply won’t settle to the bottom in the alloted time. Filtration can remove those particles and leave the wine limpid and bright. Another reason to filter is for microbial stability. No one wants to open a bottle and find it still fermenting, or nearly explosive with foul-smelling gases. A third type of filtration is performed by larger wineries only, to recover wine from the lees that settle to the bottom of the maturation vessel. This requires special equipment and enough lees to justify the investment, which most smaller producers just don’t have. We will ignore that here, but if you have questions about it, ask away.

Filtration tools and techniques—pad filtration

To understand how and why we might filter for appearance or for stability, it is helpful to understand how filtration works. There are two technologies in widespread use today. Pad filtration is the older technology. A series of cellulose (wood pulp, essentially paper) sheets are stacked in a frame and wine is forced through them. The tighter the weave of the cellulose, the more solids are left behind. One obvious disadvantage is that cellulose has flavor, and it is not a flavor that we would enjoy in our wine. This is easily overcome, however, by running (a lot of) water through the pads prior to introducing the wine. The water emerging from the pads is tasted and, when there is no more “papery” taste, it’s time for the wine. Another disadvantage is that the size of the gaps in the cellulose is imprecise. The filter sheets are sold with a nominal pore size, but there will always be a range of sizes. This can be of special concern when filtering for stability.

Typically a wine will go through several sets of pads, starting with bigger (looser) pores, and ending with tighter or smaller pores.

Crossflow filtration

A newer filtration technology is called crossflow because, rather than pushing the wine through the filter medium, it gradually passes through as it circulates. The filter medium is a membrane and it can have very precise pore sizes, making this a better choice for filtration for stability. Typically only one pass is needed, as opposed to one pass for each pore size as with pad filtration. Membrane filtration is also a necessary first step to treating a wine with reverse osmosis, which we will discuss below as a special application of crossflow filtration.

Filtration for appearance

To clean up or “polish” a wine, either technology will work. For pad filtration, the wine might first pass through pads with a nominal pore size of 5-7 microns (0.005-0.007mm) and then, if not “bright enough,” through another set of pads with 2-3 micron pores. Some winemakers who do this will still confidently claim that there wine has not been filtered, for reasons that elude us (but may be elucidated below).

Filtration for stability

Naturally, if the concern is to remove microbes, the pores have to be tighter. Wine is a wonderful beverage in that virtually no human pathogens can survive in it. Nevertheless, some microbes can survive in it and, while they pose no threat to human health, they can pose a threat to the taste of the wine. Lactobacillus spp., for instance, can metabolize any sugars left in the wine and produce acetic acid (vinegar smell) and carbon dioxide (gas, foaming). The acetic acid may form an ester with the ethanol in the wine to create ethyl acetate, which smells like nail polish remover. Brettanomyces yeast can use ethanol as fuel and transform polyphenol precursuors into nasty vinyl phenols that smell of anything from stale hay to horse manure. Not what we want to drink!

A 0.45 micron pore size is generally considered tight enough to remove bacteria (much larger yeast will have been removed at larger pore sizes). With pad filtration it usually takes 4 passes to filter to this level, but with crossflow filtration it can be achieved in one pass. Some winemakers prefer to go tighter still, to ensure that no bacterial spores can persist in the wine. 0.2 microns is considered safe for this. Again, the pore size for filter pads is nominal, and even at the tightest level there may be larger pores that could allow bad agents to pass, but at a minimum the filtration will dramatically reduce their population and thus the risk of contamination.

The downsides

Filtration sounds great, doesn’t it? So why are some consumers afraid of it, and why do some producers proudly claim they forego it? Much of the hostility towards filtration seems to be based in romantic ideas of a wine’s integrity, or even soul. Wine certainly inspires mystical thinking and that is part of its charm. But do odd bits of grape pulp and particles of dead yeast really comprise an integral part of the beverage? Dead yeast actually can contribute pleasant flavors and textures to a wine. That is properly the subject of another piece, but in brief, as the yeast cells die and autolyze, they release compounds into the wine that can enhance mouthfeel, making the wine feel more silky and rich on the palate. Still, that can and should happen before the wine goes into bottle. Leaving the spent yeast in the bottled wine just makes for a cloudy drink.

Another downside of filtration is the risk of oxidation. Anytime a wine is handled there is the chance for oxygen pickup. At best oxygen can make a wine seem prematurely “tired” or flat. Alcohol is oxidized to acetaldehyde, which smells like stale apples. The risk of oxidation is greater with pad than with crossflow filtration, not least because of the multiple passes required for pad filtration. With a skilled operator, however, the oxygen pickup is minimal.

Perhaps the biggest concern with filtration has to do with its affect on a wine’s structure. But this, we will see, is based on a misunderstanding. Many elements contribute to a wine’s structure, which is how it appears on the palate, or its “three-dimensionality.” Tannins give the wine its grip, and ethanol can make it seem somewhat thick, as can glycerol and any residual sugar.

Colloids also contribute to wine’s structure and mouthfeel. Colloids are associations of large molecules, and they cannot pass through a filter intact. Tasting a wine that has just passed through a filter can be a shock. The mouthfeel is completely changed, usually for the worse. We suspect it is this mistake—tasting just after filtration—that contributes most to filtration’s bad rap. However, the components of the colloids do pass through the filter, and with time they re-form the colloids. All better now.

Why we filter

We started filtration with the 2013 vintage. We have had no reports or complaints regarding the appearance or stability of our earlier, non-filtered wines, or for that matter, of our later, filtered wines. We decided to filter because we wanted to be sure that the wines you enjoy are as we intended them, with nothing nefarious happening before you open that bottle. We hope that this piece has helped you to understand our rational for filtering, and what the process entails. Please chime in with any comments or questions you have on the subject.

Post-script—reverse osmosis

Crossflow filtration can be so tight that it can discriminate among molecules by size. The principal components of wine: water, ethanol, and organic acids such as tartaric and malic acids, are all quite small by molecular weight. So are most volatile compounds, which contribute aromas. When bad things happen to good wines, unpleasant volatile compounds are often produced. Some examples are acetic acid and ethyl acetate, the volatile phenols mentioned above, and compounds related to “smoke taint,” such as 4-methylguaiacol. Wines can pass through a crossflow filter and then over resins that selectively bind these compounds. With the bad actors gone the treated path is reunited with what did not pass through the filter to re-create the now restored wine. This technique can also be used to adjust the alcohol content in the wine. The permeate (the portion that passed through the filter) is distilled to remove the alcohol before being rejoined with the retentate (the portion that did not pass through the filter). Pretty crazy stuff!

2017 Wildfires Update

Last night a gentle rain began to fall over Napa Valley. In Calistoga we got a welcome 0.36″ of precipitation. I cannot remember the last time rainfall was so welcome (which shows how quickly I forget the 5+ year drought that just ended).

When we returned to Calistoga from our evacuation on Monday, the valley was still ablaze. Our Cabernet vineyard in the hills above Oakville was surrounded on three sides by towers of flame. A trio of helicopters made endless loops scooping water from Robert Mondavi Vineyard (thank you!!!) and dumping the water on those burning hills just above.

I drove down-valley yesterday and the flames are completely extinguished, revealing burn scars on the hillsides. Thank you firefighters, first responders, and everyone who came to save our homes and livelihoods.

The fires began the night of Sunday, October 8. We held on until we faced mandatory evacuation on Wednesday, October 11. In the interim, the fires laid waste to much of Santa Rosa (our nearest big city), the eastern and western sides of the city of Napa, and so much more.

As we sat in exile, we could only hope that we would have a home–and a town–to return to. We are so grateful to all who made that hope a reality.

We are deeply aware of how fortunate we are, and of how much our friends and neighbors have lost. If you would like to help those in need, we recommend donating to the Napa Valley Community Foundation:…/38…

For other reputable suggestions, please look here:

Our community will take a lot of love to be made whole. Thank you for sharing yours.
Smoke filled the valley on Monday, October 9

Another smoky scene from Wednesday, October 11, the day we evacuated.

This picture does not convey how red the sun was through the smoke.