From the Archives: The War on Terroir and Wines of Mass Vinification by Rich Olsen-Harbich, Winemaker, Bedell Cellars

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The following post, written by Bedell Cellars winemaker Rich Olsen-Harbich, was originally appeared on the New York Cork Report in November of 2005. 

Read it again. We’re talking about terroir — you know, that French term? Believe it or not, there is actually a debate going on today that asks if terroir really exists. I used to find this astonishing since after all, isn’t wine all about where it’s grown? Isn’t that why we have thousands of different wines to choose from in the stores and restaurants? If terroir didn’t exist, what would any region have over any other? Wouldn’t it be better just to consolidate all the winemaking in one part of the world, cut expenses and take it from there? Wouldn’t you just want to drink Jack Daniels or Grey Goose — the same products made to the exact same specifications year after year?

That’s before I finally realized how this argument started to develop. Its because of a type of product that has become all the rage lately and is produced almost everywhere in the wine world. I call them WMVs — Wines of Mass Vinification.

No not those!. These can actually be found in any wine shop (or, if you live outside of New York State — gas station, grocery store, convenience or state store) you walk into. WMVs are wines made without any respect to terroir. They are typically produced in large quantities, totally by machine and rarely touch anyone’s lips during the winemaking process. Many “wineries” try to actually produce them with the exact same flavor components every single year. They can do this by utilizing gas chromatography, spectrometry and flavor profile analysis. Being a winemaker for a WMV means looking at lot of charts and lab analysis to determine how your wine is going to taste.

WMVs are not only found in mobile trailer units but in some of the finest homes and McMansions in the United States. Are they dangerous?

You bet they are…dangerous to the concept of terroir and maybe even to you as well. And they are all around us.

The list of ingredients for manufacturing a WMV can be found on the Internet (where else?). All the ingredients are totally legal — even approved by the BATF. Can you believe this?Here is just a partial list of them in alphabetical order:

Here is just a partial list of them in alphabetical order:

Acacia gum, Activated carbon, Aluminosilicates, Ammonium carbonate, Ammonium, Phosphate, Calcium carbonate, Calcium sulfate, Casein, Copper Sulfate, Polyoxyethylene 40 monostearate, Silicon dioxide, Dimethylpolysiloxane sorbitan monostearate, Glycerol monooleate, Glycerol dioleate, Dimethyl dicarbonate, Carbohydrase, Cellulase, Glucose oxidase, Pectinase, Protease, Ethyl maltol, Ferro cyanide, Ferrous sulfate, Fumaric acid, Hydrogen Peroxide, Isinglass, Maltol, Potassium bitartrate, Potassium citrate, Silica gel, sorbic acid, soy flour, sulfur dioxide, thiamine hydrochloride, Killed whole cells of Lactobacillus, Glucose Syrup Solids

Oh yeah, I almost forgot the last one — water. (that’s if you’re in California…)

Pretty impressive isn’t it? And this is just the list for our country. The U.S. is actually fairly tough on food additives compared with the E.U. and South America. Put that in your winepress and squeeze it.

Sure, some of these additives are very common and not dangerous at all like Pectinase (also used in fruit juices) and sulfur (an antioxidant used since Egyptian times for microbiological preservation and sanitation.) But for the most part, the list is a clear indication that not all wine is made the same.

Do you care? I do.

I not only like my wines to be natural and free from additives but I want wines that express themselves — that emphasize the terroir — and the flavor of the region they come from. Isn’t that the whole point? What if everyone in the world started to look and act the same way, with the same mannerisms, accents and clothes? It sounds like a
bad Star Trek episode at the very least.

Remember a merlot grape — the same merlot grape — grown in upstate New York or Sonoma or Bordeaux will not taste the same even if we used exactly the same processing techniques. It’s the terroir stupid!

In our arrogance, we sometimes forget how little influence we have over the natural world. I want to know what goes into my wine if that’s not too much trouble. (And please don’t bother to tell me it’s organic — that’s a topic for another post.) But when I’m enjoying wine from another region, I want to imagine what that part of the world smells like, tastes like and what the people drink. Maybe it’s because I can’t afford to travel there myself so enjoying the wine is the next best thing to being there.

Don’t get me wrong, I want wine to taste good, to bring pleasure. And, in a world where everything seems more and more processed and removed from the point of creation, I’d like to think that wine can still be made safe, pure and free from all the other garbage that is in so many other foods. If you hadn’t noticed, there is no ingredient label on wines. Too bad, because the best ones would have a label very simple and small. Here it is.

Ingredients: Grapes.

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About Author

Lenn Thompson, a proud Pittsburgh, PA native, moved to Long Island more than a decade ago and quickly fell in love with the region’s dynamic and emerging wine community. A digital and content marketing and community professional by day, he founded NewYorkCorkReport.com in early 2004 to share his passion for the wines, beers and spirits of New York State. Since then, the site has become the premier source for independent New York wine commentary, reviews and news. Formerly the editor of the Long Island Wine Gazette, a contributor to Edible Brooklyn, wine columnist for Hamptons.com and regional editor for Appellation America covering the Long Island and Hudson River Valley regions, Lenn contributes to Edible East End, Palate Press, Patch and is the wine columnist for Dan’s Papers in the Hamptons. Lenn is also on the board of directors for Drink Local Wine, and is the creator and founder of TasteCamp, a yearly regional wine immersion event for writers and bloggers. An admitted riesling and cabernet franc fanatic, he’s intensely passionate about eating drinking local and the many local wine regions of America. Lenn lives in Miller Place, NY with his wife Nena, son Jackson, daughter Anna and their dog, Casey Lemieux Thompson.

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