The Wine Rules #1 – Vintage
by Dudley Brown
Imagine that you love freshly picked Pink Lady apples and that you’ve just bought a bag of 20 “New Season” Pink Lady apples from an upmarket green grocer. You get home and discover three of the apples are not Pink Ladies but Red Delicious. You take the bag back and tell the blue haired employee you want a refund. You insist that what you bought isn’t what was advertised and starting behaving like a indignant pork chop about this. The employee shrugs his shoulders and tells you “Sorry, those are the rules” but then, in a sympathetic and conspiratorial way, he tells you “You want to know what’s even worse? Three of the other apples are from last season.” You then go to the manager (and the owner) and are informed that both of these deceptions are permitted under the rules of apple marketing. You decide that it isn’t worth arguing the point any further and depart swearing never to buy over-priced food from that green grocer again. As you drive home, the penny drops and you realize that if this reputable green grocer finds this practice acceptable, that your low-cost local grocery does the exact same thing. You’re trapped.
True story? No. But, if it were a bottle of 2010 Shiraz made in Australia instead of apples, it could be.
Under the rules of wine making and wine marketing in Australia, a wine labelled 2010 Shiraz (or any other variety or vintage for that matter), may contain up to 15% of any other variety or varieties of fermented grapes without informing you. Compounding this, it may also contain up to 15% of the labelled variety (Shiraz in this case) from a different vintage or vintages also without informing you. The result is that the wine you purchase may only be 70% of the variety and vintage advertised on the label. Moreover, these rules apply equally to a cheap bottle of plonk as well as to a bottle costing hundreds of dollars. Is this a standard you would accept in any other upmarket product that you would physically consume? For instance, would you continue to buy organic vegetables if you knew that they might only be 70% organically grown while the other 30% had been sprayed with inorganic chemicals? Would you continue to pay a trust premium for this if you knew this to be the standard?
Why is this the case in wine then?
If you ask a wine maker, they might tell you that the rules enable them to make more consistent wine from year to year and that the rules are of benefit to the consumer because the consumer gets a more consistent or reliable product. Or, that the consumer is benefited by knowing exactly what it is they are getting (is 70% of the truth better than 40% or 0% ? hmmmm….). Or, like the blue haired teenager, they may just shrug their shoulders and say “sorry, those are the rules.” Now, as the the only person in the hedonic sweepstakes of wine who matters, does this standard meet your standards and expectations?
Given that grape growing and wine production are highly variable in quality and quantity from year to year, these rules may make practical sense in enabling wine makers to even out variations in these variables from year to year and thus be understood as “reasonable”. But, as with the lowest common denominator effect(s) of any rule making, they have more sinister applications.
Say a small-ish wine maker makes a 2000 cases of a wine labelled as a straight varietal in a given year. The wine subsequently gets a big score from an influential wine critic. The orders pile in from Australia and overseas. The 2000 cases sell out instantly and the winemaker has orders for 6000 more cases that they can not fill from the wine they produced for that bottling. What to do?
Under the rules, the winemaker can go out and buy bulk wine from the same region that approximates the vintage and varietal attributes of the sold out wine. He can then fill the orders for 6000 more cases with a different wine than the one that received the big score and use the same label. Is this a deception or, just “playing by the rules?” If you were to buy wine from the both batches and not find the second batch not of the high quality you experienced with the first, would you think you had been done over as with the Pink Lady apples and ask for a refund? Better, would you would even be entitled to one? Would you patronize that winemaker or retailer again if they did not tell you in advance of your purchase that the wines were different? Or, would the penny drop and you just accept that these are “the rules?”
The truth is that for very large scale wine production, this is exactly how wine is made in many cases. The winemaker makes a wine, sells it and then sees how it is received by critics and the marketplace. If it goes well, they buy bulk wine and make more until such time that it is time for the next vintage to be released. Have you ever wondered why a good bargain drop tastes different the second or third time you buy it and thought that it must just be you or the day that are different? Have you ever seen a large scale wine brand with a “sold out until next year” sign on your grocery shelf?
To me, the written rules do not meet the standard of integrity, authenticity and transparency that consumers expect from wine. Wine, fine wine in particular, is a fundamentally different product from most other physically consumable products. It is an experiential product that is wildly subjective in character to the person drinking it – you. Most of us understand that vintages and qualities vary. It is the industry that wishes to build “brands” that are inherently consistent and reliable “markers” for trust in order to build a long term trusting relationship with us. Hence, the rules.
Instead of educating us about these variations, the industry seeks the comfort of reliability and consistency (of wine, sales, revenues, labeling, etc) at the expense of trusting us to make up our own minds year after year. This regression to the mean of the wine experience is exactly what the consumer of fine wine does not want. Wine drinking, and taste, are a journey for us not a branding exercise. Our palates change, seasons change, we change. Wines that don’t change will get discarded on our journey and the producer will never know why or what changed unless they have a trusted relationship with us. From my point of view, it is the producer’s responsibility to create a product worthy of our trust and to create the possibility of long lasting and loyal relationship with us.
At Inkwell, we produce a Shiraz from our Inkwell Blocks 1 and 2 each year. To my mind, our current release, the 2010, (contains 4% 2010 Primitivo!), is superior to our last release, the 2008. With the 2008, we had a restaurant customer in Sydney that bought a couple of cases per week while stocks lasted. They told me that it was one of their favorite wines ever and one of the best sellers they had ever had and that they would definitely stock Inkwell when the 2010 was released. A few weeks ago, I sent them a sample of the 2010. They didn’t like it! But, I had a great conversation with the sommelier and learned what it was he liked about the 2008 compared to the 2010. Will we make our wine differently next year to please this customer? Probably not. But, did we further a long-term relationship by learning more about his tastes and his journey with wine? Yes. In fact, he is moving to a new restaurant with an Italian menu and wants to stock our 2010 Primitivo (sold out, sorry) that he didn’t wish to stock at his old restaurant. Absent the relationship, we would have lost this customer, perhaps for life, over one wine that didn’t meet his personal expectations. Accepting that wine is a journey for all of us and that our journeys don’t always converge is difficult when you need to sell wine for a living. But, it’s a life that accepts what is thrown at us, adapts, and continues. This is life – it’s how we learn and grow as winemakers and consumers.
Under the Label Integrity Program (“L.I.P.”) also known as “the rules,” every winemaker is required to know exactly what is in every wine wine bottle, barrel or tank, where it came from and when it was produced. That such a thorough and important program should be used to create the opposite of integrity is, on a good day, Orwellian.
To me, our new Wine Rules should insist that winemakers disclose the exact percentages of varieties and vintages in every bottle of wine – preferably on the bottle – but at least in legible type on a “find-able” branded website.
What do you think? And, what wines do you love that meet this new standard?