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03.21.2007

Technology = Better Bordeaux?

I should tell you, I briefly considered scrapping this post, as I'm sure it's going to bring out the doomsayers among my readership, but that's ok, the conversation needs to be had.

I came across an interesting article in Business Week Magazine last week that I thought perfectly captured the threshold on which the wine world, and France in particular finds itself today. It's worth a read, but for the purposes of my point, let me summarize some key facts laid out in the article:

1. 4000 or so lesser known Bordeaux producers have gone out of business since the early 1990s.
2. Exports of Bordeaux are below their levels in the early 1990s, and they fell a dramatic 17% between 1998 and 2005.

This is the reality of the French wine market in which this story takes place. The story itself is as simple as it is scandalous to some: Bordeaux winemakers are utilizing chemical analysis of their wine to determine what actions they should take before and during harvest, as well as through the winemaking process. These steps can be as common as leaf thinning to allow more sun on the grapes in order to get them riper, to more unusual techniques like heating the grapes before crushing them, as well as presumably oak programs, blending, and chapatalization (the addition of sugar to the wine -- a common technique in some regions of France).

The goal of all this? To make better tasting wines that sell both in France and abroad.

It's at this point that the anti-wine-globalization protesters start banging on their screens.

"See," they yell, "we told you that every wine is going to end up tasting the same because of Robert Parker and technology and capitalism!" And I have to bite my knuckles to keep from slapping them upside the head.

There is a great fear of technology in the wine world, and some sort of fucked-up uber-romanticism that exists out there for a lot of people - the notion that the use of technology in the winemaking process somehow "spoils the magic" or worse, results in wines that are somehow "unnatural" or "manipulated." These folks are usually the ones that also claim that the strict appellation system in France is the last bastion of "quality assurance" that keeps the whole country from plunging into an abyss of winemaking that would result in every French wine tasting like Turley Zinfandel.

In case you're interested in some thoughts along these lines, I'd suggest a look at a recent blog post by Eric Asimov (which yielded so many comments that he's posted a follow-up here), and one of several discussions about France's appellation system here on Vinography.

But back to this article. Without repeating the technology vs. no technology arguments that you will find articulated in the links I've just provided, what I find so explicitly clear in this article is the presentation of the economic and market realities that these winemakers in France are facing.

These realities are the perfect "test case" if you will for the benefits of technology in winemaking. Which is to say if thousands of winemakers are losing their livelihoods because no one is buying their wine, then when one of them makes his wine differently and then all of a sudden his wines start to sell, that's a pretty clear message.

And that is exactly what has happened to the winemaker in this story. He made wine the "traditional" way for years and nearly went out of business. Now he's making a different wine and it's selling like hotcakes. The difference was taking a technological approach to his winemaking.

So the real question worth exploring here can be stated this way: did this guy make BETTER wine as a result of what he did.

I would argue yes, because it sold. People bought it, liked it, and bought some more, and now this guy can make a living as a winemaker and winegrower where before, that was in serious jeopardy.

But there are many people who would argue quite the opposite. They would suggest that his "lighter, fruitier" Bordeaux is a bastard product of the globalization of wine. Oh, yes, and I forgot, also a technologically created monstrosity: a "manipulated" wine that is most certainly the opposite of "natural."

Most of the folks who offer such assessments, however, never manage to suggest what that winemaker ought to be doing in order to make a living, though. I find that those who most strongly adhere to the tenets of "natural winemaking" or "non-interventionalist" winemaking are least likely to admit that wine is a consumer product made by people who are trying to make enough money to feed their kids and live a good life.

The wine world is currently stuck between two eras, the pre-industrial era, and the future, whatever it may be. We do not have well-developed tools to think (as consumers or as critics) about what and how much technology helps to make a good wine better, and what or how much technology obliterates the goodness that all wine lovers seek in wine.

I do know that every major, old-guard wine critic I know shares the opinion that there is significantly more good wine being made now than there was 30 years ago. Some of that is due to new producers, but a lot of that is due to many people just making better wine, and a lot of that has to do with technology.

At the end of the day, mostly what I wish is that people (myself included) would just shut up about all this stuff and taste the damn wine. If it's good we should buy it. If it is not, we should not.

Read the article. Then everyone vote with your palate.

Comments (20)

03.22.07 at 6:55 AM

Love it!

You have re-framed this debate.

It's easy to be a critic when you have money in the bank - and assume everybody else miraculously does, too. Most people just don't see winemakers as real flesh-and-blood people with spouses, kids, bills to pay, etc.

If no one's buying it....it probably ain't good wine...the winemakers aren't making the wine for themselves!

I think the key is Transparency about what's in the bottle.

Hell, oak barrels are "technology"! And ancient wine presses were indentations in rocks in the ground. Should we go back to that?

Michael Rasmussen wrote:
03.22.07 at 7:57 AM

I don't know. I certainly agree with the argument that a winemaker needs to make a living, and should follow the buck. What I think is left out of the argument is whether or not the most profitable approach is to taste like every other wine out there. A well laid business plan will always identify a segment of a market and differentiate a product in a way that tailors to that segment. If French, or Spanish, or Russian winemakers are making wine that tastes like a formula, then what (besides an appelation and a label) does the winemaker have to differentiate his product?

I don't expect that every wine can be Margaux or DRC LaTache, but it occurs to me that a change in production style to look just like everyone else will leave the French right where they started. A homogeneous wine with a confusing label that at any price seems "stuck up" to the average American consumer. I don't think the contents of the bottle are the problem for the French. It is their image. If their wine is perceived to be "high class" and priced to the "low class" consumer, it will never get purchased. The French don't need a new style of wine, they need a new marketing exec.
In the meantime, I'm happy to explore the myriad of French bottles in my wine shop that have a regional character to them and cost less than $20. Now if only someone could get that message out to the public.

Arthur wrote:
03.22.07 at 8:10 AM

Great post, Alder!

A winemaker I spoke to recently asserts that every aspect of winemaking IS a manufactured product and thus any argument about "unnatural" or "over-manufactured" wine are without merit.

It would seem to me that those arguments are more of a visceral reflex of those inclined towards mystical, incense-chanting-and-crystals thinking.

03.22.07 at 8:33 AM

And isn't it "well known" that the top Bordeaux estates (those that can afford the setup) use reverse osmosis? But instead of post-fermentation, as in California, they use it pre-fermentation to concentrate the must.

And of course German wine can only exist in its modern form because of the liberal use of technology.

St. Vini wrote:
03.22.07 at 9:12 AM

Great post, Alder.

I love how the counter to this is always, as Mr. Rassmussen states "to (end up) tast(ing) like every other wine out there". BS! All high-scoring wines don't taste the same, no matter the critic. Further, many of the "differences" people used to appreciate (as Alder implies) were a result of poor quality control (a little Brett, anyone?) and lack of even ripeness.

This whole concept of "natural" wines is a red herring right from the start.

V

03.22.07 at 9:50 AM

Alder, I agree with most of your comments, although this might not be a perfect "test case" (I'd want to know what else Reynier has done differently in terms of pricing, packaging, marketing, distributor relations, etc.)

But the article you refer to perpetuates some old canards about the industry. One is the notion that use of lab analysis and "chemistry" automatically leads to international style wines. (For good counter examples, just look at the wines of Kalin Cellars in CA or Domaine Maume in Burgundy, both owned by chemistry professors). In fact, arguably rigorous lab analysis and tracking is a more important prerequisite for "unmanipulated" wines than "industrial" wines where problems can be resolved with various additives and sterile filtration.

Another is the notion that Bordeaux winemakers are "handicapped by a complex appellation and labeling system". In fact it is the simple "Bordeaux" appellation wines that are struggling the most and the small, high end appellations that are generally more successful. A wine labeled "Bordeaux" is no more complicated than a wine labeled "Sauvignon Blanc".

03.22.07 at 9:56 AM

Nice written and interesting article.

I'm not quite sure the reality of producing better Bordeaux is as simple as "taking a technological approach" to the wine. I don't argue that quality of Bordeaux wines has overall improved in the last 20 years or so, sometimes due to technology (an efficient marketing campaign also helps a lot!). To my view, technology has only a secondary impact on global quality improvement. Of course, simple things such as adapted pruning, lower yields, leaf thinning and so forth have considerably contributed to produce better wines.

Dozens of examples in France can be found, not only at Bordeaux, of wineries that in reality have REDUCED their technological approach and are selling stronger than ever. Actually a number of winemakers think that the less you manipulate the must/wine, the better results you get. On the other hand, their vineyards are carefully monitored, often (but not systematically) with an organic approach. I often hear winemakers say to me: "Today I spend 80% of my time in the vineyard and 20% in the cellar. Fifteen years ago, I was 20% in the vineyard and 80% in the cellar!".

Alain in Switzerland

paul la Fontaine wrote:
03.22.07 at 10:14 AM

Technology = Better Bordeaux? good? Bad?

Q: really exist bad wines?, better wines? or its only taste?

some times a regular Chianti its as good as a Chianti Clasico , for 1/4 of the price.
50% its the wine itself. 50% its merchandise Magazines, points, etc.

if some winemarkers used tecnology to offer better product, welcome

as you say: if i liked, i'll buy

Alder wrote:
03.22.07 at 10:30 AM

Christian,

Thanks for your comments. The way I read the point about the appellation system was about the rules and regulations that go with the appellation status rather than simply the naming being a problem.

Alder wrote:
03.22.07 at 10:43 AM

Michael,

Thanks for your thoughtful comments. I think you have made the leap of illogic that a lot of people make, which is that by using technology to make wine that people think tastes better, wineries are making wine that tastes like every other wine out there.

I completely agree with you that the marketing issue is huge for the French, and I would even go so far as to say that it is a bigger issue than wine quality, however there is the one issue that belies that, which is the fact that the French (who certainly we must assume have no issues understanding their appellation system) are ALSO not buying a lot of these wines, and that most certainly (though not entirely -- there are domestic marketing issues and demographic trends to contend with) has more to do with their quality.

I hear ya on the $20 gems. Sadly, makers of wines in this price point are the ones struggling the most.

Tyler T wrote:
03.22.07 at 10:58 AM

Good commentary. Its interesting how people continue to beat the 'homogenous wine' drum without proving their point. Are all wines really becoming more similar? Perhaps, but I suspect placing low-end Bordeaux next to low-end Aussie wine in a blind tasting will not yield 'identical wines'. Besides, you can use technology AND still make a wine that has identity with a place.

Reminds me of a comment made in Mondovino by some well known (not to me) wealthy wine buyer who asserted he would rather drink a bad wine of terroir than a decent 'homogenized' wine. What? Are you crazy? I'd rather drink good wine period, life is too short to make or drink bad wine; and since the general consumer does not have that attitude, the bad terroir wine won't last for very long.

Good post.
T

Michael Rasmussen wrote:
03.22.07 at 11:22 AM

I'm not sure I'm being as clear as I could be. I'm in no way making the assertion that it is impossible to make a wine that tastes good and is unique, or that modern wine making techniques can't aid in doing that.

I'll respond to:

"BS! All high-scoring wines don't taste the same, no matter the critic."

I think thats the point. Hight scoring wines AREN'T and shouldn't be cookie cutter factory productions. And it isn't the first growth bordeaux chateaux that are in jeopardy. In fact I would argue they are making out quite well, and that they aren't the producers we are talking about here. The cookie cutter wines are occurring at the $12 level and they are the ones this discussion is about. Go taste a $12 bottle of california cab, australian cab, and chilean cab and tell me which is which. All of them are using the same modern winemaking techniques to produce the same wine and using BRANDING to differentiate themselves. Now go taste a bottle of some random $12 bordeaux bottling. I can almost guarantee it will taste different than the others. It will have character, but it likely won't be a fruit bomb. Alder cites several techniques of modern winemaking.

"leaf thinning to allow more sun on the grapes in order to get them riper, to more unusual techniques like heating the grapes before crushing them, as well as presumably oak programs, blending, and chapatalization"

Every one of those techniques is employed to ripen the fruit, increase oak influence, and raise the alcohol. In my mind every one of them is used to make wine taste more like it came from California.

"I think you have made the leap of illogic that a lot of people make, which is that by using technology to make wine that people think tastes better, wineries are making wine that tastes like every other wine out there."

No, I don't think that is illogical at all. If a wine maker wants to make a product that will sell, she/he will reach the logical conclusion to make one that tastes like what is selling well, and I think that is exactly what the French are doing.

I will concede that many of these techniques will make the wine taste better (if you can define better), but unfortunately the mainstream definition of better is "just like everything else." The French used to have a market for their wines. It was the French. They are losing that market quickly as a younger crowd shifts to other drinks. They are looking to the American market to fill the void left behind, and we don't want their traditional wines, we want wines that taste like our wines. So they make wines that taste like ours, using our modern techniques.

Please feel free to comment, rebut, whatever, I'm interested in the debate.

Melanie wrote:
03.22.07 at 11:45 AM

I think the point of making wine to sell is that it sells. If you have to use technology to determine when you should do something or if you should add something, then why not take advantage of the advances in science that are available to you?
And furthermore....magic, smagic. It's delusional to think that things will just line up and happen magically.
I am a fairly young wine drinker (28) and I have to say, I'm not looking for a French wine that tastes like American wine. I want something that tastes good. Something I can enjoy, and something I can recommend to friends or feel comfortable bringing as a host/hostess gift. Honestly I prefer wines to be under 40$ but that's just to be kind to my wallet. However, I don't mind dishing out more for a special occasion, but I won't buy something that doesn't taste good just because it's supposed to be "fancier" or more sophisticated.

Geoff Smith wrote:
03.23.07 at 9:54 AM

Alder,

You might want to check out Tom Cannavan's site for "sweet-spotting" in the land of Oz:

http://wine-pages.com/features/mclaren-vale.htm

Geoff

Liang wrote:
03.23.07 at 10:32 AM

This is the New Age and the New Age should take its stand. But wine....well, there is a point of rocks for pressing and natural. Technology has been used to prevent grey rot and diseases. Even to neutralize acidity. So, why not technology? We can say that when we put technology into the French wine making process, perhaps a new appelation controlee? Appelation Bordeaux Controlee Technology? (AOTC)

Whit Stevens wrote:
03.23.07 at 2:36 PM

Thank you Alder, thank you! You are a torch of reason in the rather dark room this subject inhabits.

Joe wrote:
03.23.07 at 9:41 PM

I love it when you touch a nerve. Amazing how many of us forget that most makers are simple farmers trying to make a living, not Dot-Com millionaires and Investment Bankers who are doing this for fun.

John wrote:
03.24.07 at 12:19 AM

Im a young wino who still enjoys this discussion because to me it seems to be THE issue in todays winemaking and there are clearly great wines on both sides of the fence. But while we're on the topic of "natural wines" and talking about forming an opinion based on tasting. Do you (Alder) or anyone else know of any resources to learn more about who exactly is producing natural wines in california so that we can start to form our own opinions based on more than the obvious extreme examples? Cheers -

Nicholas wrote:
03.25.07 at 1:44 AM

It seems odd to state that wine quality is necessarily reflected in higher sales. Is supermarket plonk wine good because it sells so well?

I've tended to agree with Karen MacNeil when she writes, "One of the most insidious myths in American wine culture is that a wine is good if you like it. Liking a wine has nothing to do with whether it is good. Liking a wine has to do with liking wine, period."

I agree that wine makers, like all kinds of farmers, need support to be able to stay on the land. While I agree that wine makers should be allowed to make wines that people like more, that doesn't necessarily make them better wines. The wines may or may not be better, but there is no logical relationship between like-ability and quality.

As for technology in wine making, I think the anti-technology camp is similar to the aversion that many serious beer drinkers and home brewers have to flavorings and adjuncts. If I were brewing a coffee stout for example, I think it's commendable to use grains that have been roasted to an appropriate extent to generate those Maillard flavors. At least better than throwing some coffee beans into the brew kettle and adding the flavor that way. Indeed, I think one of the real pleasures of many beers is the fact that their flavors come from very simple sources: barley, hops, yeast, and water (e.g. the banana flavor of a hefeweizen). In a blind taste test, I might not be able to tell the difference. But if I knew how they were both made, it's pretty clear to me which one I'd choose.

And it's the same with wine.

A wine that has been "maninpulated" in one way or another may not be evident upon taste. But I think many of us would agree that we'd rather drink the wine that hasn't been oaked to mask certain flavors, chaptalized to cover-up a yield that's too large, etc. These techniques have their uses, but they can be used for good just as much as for evil.

To take this to the absurd extreme, imagine if flavor companies became interested in manufacturing the molecules that make up wine flavor. These chemicals could then be mixed with water and ethanol, and voila! Wine! Consistent replication of the finest Bordeaux and Barolo vintages with no chance of off-flavors, spoilage, or corking! Even if the products couldn't be differentiated from the original wines by a mass spectrometer, I wouldn't drink them.

Ever.

Alder wrote:
03.25.07 at 1:39 PM

Nicholas,

Thanks for the comments. Perhaps you misunderstand me slightly. I am not making the assertion that the quality of the wine and it sales numbers are directly proportional or dependent. We all know that the largest selling wines in the world are NOT the highest quality. The two factors do not directly correlate.

However, there IS a relationship between quality and success in the marketplace, in that a wine has to meet a certain threshold of quality for people to want to drink it. As much as I might personally dislike drinking wines like Two Buck Chuck and Yellow Tail, I also recognize how they are much higher quality wines than most of their predecessors in those price categories for the past two decades, and while their success has much to do with branding and marketing and product pricing, they never would have gotten anywhere if they weren't wines that people thought were better than the alternatives.

There are three different "betters" at play in this situation, each measured against different standards:

1. The winemaker who wants to use technology to make a wine that he thinks is better. What is better to him? He knows it when he tastes it. He defines better in relative terms to what he was capable of creating before the use of any new technology or technique. How many winemakers out there in the world do you think there are that continue to make wine that they think is WORSE than they used to make?

2. The consumer votes with their palate and their pocketbook. Taking price out of the equation, consumers always buy the product that is "better" for them. Better means some combination of tasting better and the emotional part of purchasing a brand or product.

3. The wine critic holds the wine up against the complete history of great wine and places the wine in the context of all great wines to determine whether that wine is "better" than some other. For a wine to get better means that it has advanced closer to the accepted standards for what is good, and farther away from the faults that we associate with bad.

Of course, as Karen MacNeil rightly points out, it is only this third assessment by the critic that offers any certainty whether a wine is "good" (that is, after all why we have critics in this world) but that doesn't invalidate the first two assessments. And it is the height of arrogance to believe that somehow the opinion of the critic objectively matters more than the first two.

That opinion might matter more to people who care about critics, but for the average struggling winemaker and the average consumer they could give a flying you know what about [insert your choice of critic here]. They're just trying to A) make a product that they are proud of and helps them support their family and B) enjoy their life, respectively.

Let me make this analogy for you.

The movie 300 just came out. Almost every major critic of stature pointed out some of its redeeming features from a technical standpoint, but panned it nonetheless. Compared to Citizen Kane or Ben Hur or whatever the gold standards are for cinema it was a lousy movie. Yet the director feels that it is a crowning achievement of his career thus far, and the public kept it at the #1 box office grosser for two weekends in a row, I believe.

Can you imagine some critic suggesting that the director not be able to make the movie that he wanted to make because by (the critic thinks) limiting his use of special effects the director might have concentrated more on the plot and dialogue and made an "objectively" better film as a result?

What utter rubbish! Lots of people listened to the critics and didn't go see that movie, and for them, the critic may have saved them from seeing a film they wouldn't like. But plenty of other people loved the movie. No one has the authority to say that either is more right than the other.

Will the movie win Best Picture next year? Of course not. It wasn't trying to.

Back to Bordeaux, is this poor producer going to be able to use chemical analysis or reverse osmosis to make the next Petrus. Of course not. He's not trying to. Is he going to be able to potentially make a wine that he likes better and that his customers like better? He might. I call that a "better" wine in any sense that really matters.

Now, as for your beer technology analogy, I totally understand what you're saying. Pretty much everyone who thinks about their relationship to wine as more than just a preference for red or white can agree that given the choice we don't want to drink "synthetic wines" or wines that have been "doctored" with chemical flavors. The problem is that most people have strange and illogical senses of what "manipulation" is and there is a HUGE gray area in the middle which is what this whole discussion is about.

To extend your analogy, we're not talking about beer made with roasted grains vs. beer flavored with coffee beans or coffee syrup. We're talking about something more along the lines of beer made from grains roasted using an old cast iron pan over an open flame vs. beer made from grains that have beeb in a laser roasting chamber that allows the roaster to make sure every kernel is roasted to exactly the same level of toast. In my opinion to call the second beer more "manipulated" and any less "natural" than the first is a complete joke.

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