Sunday, May 3, 2009

The Seedy Underbelly of Cheap Wine

Importer Kermit Lynch's book Adventures on the Wine Trail, in an attempt to de-romanticize the pristine image consumers often have of wine, relays several anecdotes about the art of blending in Burgundy. One vignette describes how a tanker truck went from village to village in Burgundy acquiring wine and the documents indicating each wine's point of origin. However, when the tanker truck "blend" was bottled, every bottle bore the label of the most well respected village that was most likely to fetch the highest price at market. Lynch also mentions that negociants, the middle men who bring the finished wine from cellar to bottle, often had a "house style" that trumped the sort of vineyard to vineyard distinctions one typically finds in Burgundy. It turns out that some negociants--perhaps those who weren't fully satisfied with the tanker blend--mixed bulk wine from Algeria, which was much higher in alcohol, fruitier and generally more robust, with the more delicate, nuanced Pinot Noir of Burgundy to produce a more enticing blend reminiscent of a sturdy Rhone wine.

Although major producers now are more careful to control what goes into bottles bearing their names, these sorts of tricks are still employed. Take for example the American equivalent of Burgundy, California Pinot Noir. Anyone who has seen the movie Sideways knows Pinot Noir is a varietal capable of reaching great heights. However, Pinot Noir, more than most varietals, is rarely very good at moderate prices. It only grows well in very specific locations, and because it is generally lighter bodied than other popular red wines, it's harder to mask deficiencies without introducing a gross imbalance to the wine. Although Pinot Noir wine traditionally is made from 100% Pinot Noir, a producer legally can have as little as 75% Pinot Noir in a blend and still call it Pinot Noir. Yes, the trick of Burgundian negociant "blending" is alive and well in California.

A local retailer advertised RedTree 2008 Pinot Noir via email recently. It had received good press recently from a major wine magazine and was priced to move at $8 per bottle. So how do you make really good Pinot Noir at $8 per bottle? With tea bags of oak chips and generic red blending wine of unknown provenance, of course! It's a win for the consumer if a wine is both good and inexpensive. But it's also a case of deceptive marketing when a consumer buys a Pinot Noir that's really a well-engineered red table wine that meets the varietal Pinot Noir standard. To me it's akin to those fruit juice drinks that have illustrations of real fruit on the bottle, but are 15% juice and 85% high fructose corn syrup water. Pinot Noir sells by name alone, and smart marketers know it's good business to label intelligently in a fashion that's perfectly legal. It's tricks of the trade like these that make me wary of any varietal wine in the sub-$10 range. The wine surely has 75% of the varietal in it, but beyond that the producer is looking to make something that will meet the expectations of the largest number of customers. Good for quality table wine. Bad for any varietal or regional expression in the finished wine.

I noticed another slightly less nefarious, yet equally fascinating detour brought about by the wheels of commerce today. A well-respected Rhone producer has an inexpensive wine they sell under the label La Vieille Ferme. This label has a picture of a chicken on it and sells for $7 per bottle at a local wine shop. Trader Joe's, meanwhile, sells wine from the same Rhone producer for $5 a bottle with the exact same appellations designated on the respective red, white and rosé wines. They go by the name La Ferme Julien and display a picture of a goat. Searching around the web a bit, it appears the same wine goes into these different bottles. One is widely distributed and well received by professional critics, while the other it seems goes exclusively to Trader Joe's. By the transitive property of wine labels, I'm going with the one that costs 28% less as an easy drinking wine for a hot Saturday afternoon.

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