Wine is a mystery to most people.
We are duped into believing it’s a sophisticated drink. Rich people don’t splurge thousands of dollars on beer bottles. We don’t slam shots of whiskey and then recount the experience with wax-poetic descriptors.
Ladies gossip over a bottle of wine, but when dudes get together, they are more likely to grab a case of beer. What’s up with that? It’s a mystery.
Wine is full of mystery, and the mystery can be intimidating. A restaurant’s wine list can turn dinner into a minefield of judgment and scrutiny. Only the brave accept the challenge of picking a bottle for the table.
All these things – the prices, the jargon, the confusion – made me skeptical. Without a shroud of mystery, wine would just be fermented juice. My curiosity insisted on unraveling this shroud.
I determined the perfect wine syllabus would teach through three methods: interviewing experts, studying books and drinking plenty of wine.
During the quarantine, I did all three.
My self-made course uncovered a lot of fascinating facts. Facts so rarely discussed that they’re practically secrets. I suppose the wine world likes it this way. Most of these facts aren’t flattering, and secrets are a great way to create mystery.
For instance, what do you know about winemaking additives? Unlike other foods and beverages, wine legally only needs to disclose the use of one additive: sulfites. The rest of the additives – and there are a lot – don’t need to be on the label. They are a mystery to the drinker.
Wine attracts people with big imaginations, but the mystery around wine is more than a big illusion created by the wine community.
They’re hiding dirty secrets too.
On a Monday morning in March – a couple of days after a night of overindulgence – a heavy box of wine books arrived on my doorstep.
Books cram every spare inch of my bookshelves. I didn’t have space for more books – nor the time to read these books. I hauled the Amazon box into the guest room and left it in the corner. Almost as fast I forgot I ordered the books, I quickly forgot I even owned them.
Then three weeks later, the world shut down. Time became available, and I needed an escape from being locked at home.
Wondering through the world of wine seemed like a perfect place to go.
My quarantine schedule involved reading in the morning, working all day and then drinking wines at night. The first goal was confidence in picking great wines from a restaurant list. What did I need to know to hold an informed wine discussion with a waiter?
But the goal quickly changed halfway through the first book. I discovered wine’s trickery went beyond a carefully cultivated image. The tricks were also ending up in my glass – which meant they were ending up in my body.
I became less concerned with sounding smart, and I became more concerned with making smart decisions.
My goal evolved into a single mission: get down to the root of all the winemaking mischief and misleading marketing.
My thirst for more information grew in tandem with my thirst for new wines.
Making Sense Of The Cents
How does one bottle of wine cost $10 and another bottle of wine – allegedly made from the same ingredients – cost over $100? You would assume a cheap bottle of wine is made from cheap ingredients, and an expensive bottle of wine is made of expensive ingredients.
This is not how wine is made.
Expensive wine is made from fermented grape juice. Cheap wine – especially in the United States – is made from fermented grape juice and much, much more.
There are 76 chemical additives approved in the U.S. by the TTB and FDA for use in making wine. Sulfur dioxide – which in the USA has a legal tolerance of 350 parts per million (ppm) instead of 160 to 210 ppm in Europe or the less than 30 ppm typically used in natural wines – is the only ingredient that needs to be disclosed on the label due to allergy concerns.
Think about wine in the context of other beverages at the grocery store. Dr. Pepper is formulated with more than two dozen ingredients – a majority of which are artificial. The majority of label-conscious consumers skip Dr. Pepper because of these additives, but these same shoppers have no problem popping open a wine at the end of the day with many of the same ingredients.
Science says wine is part of a healthy lifestyle. Wine contains heart-healthy antioxidants, and it’s consumed daily in BlueZones – places around the world where people live the longest.
But if wine labels don’t say what is in the wine, how does a label-conscious consumer choose a wine?
Labels are the last line of defense. I’m hip to the game. I know all the smoke and mirrors used to play up buzzwords and disguise nasty ingredients. There are a lot of sneaky tricks up and down all the aisles of a grocery store. I’m a label inspector.
Except in the wine aisle. There’s not much to inspect. Wines from outside the United States offer more to inspect on the labels, but you need to be bilingual and up to speed on your geography and history to decode the additional information. The majority of it has nothing to do with what’s in the wine.
My big priority with selecting wines is now prioritizing purity. I demand authenticity from the soil to the shelf. I only want to drink wines that are made from nature – not modern chemistry.
With this in mind, I developed two rules for selecting wines.
1) Return To Winemaking’s Roots
In the last few decades, we’ve lost a world of pure wines. I search for a new world of wines in that lost world. I look for traditional winemaking methods to find alluring aromas, delicious flavors and fun experiences.
The old world, as wine nerds say, is Europe. Europe did a better job protecting their winemaking methods over the last couple hundred years, so I spend more time looking for wines from Europe – and South America – than North America.
When wine is made with ancient methods, the wine offers the potential to restore the health of people and the planet. I encourage everyone to seek out the story behind each bottle. Good wines are made with incredible care. You can do their stories justice by taking the time to learn about the places, people and production methods for each bottle. Then you can really do great wine justice by voting with your dollars. We should support winemakers out there making sacrifices to support our health and planet.
2) Forgotten Vines Offer Better Value
There are more than 1,300 grape varieties, but 80% of the world’s wine is produced from 20 grapes. The demand for the recognized grape varieties creates competitive pricing.
By discovering lesser-known wines with untapped demand, you can find incredibly priced wines with premium drinking experiences. You may need to travel off the beaten path, research history and research some grape DNA – which isn’t that hard. Besides, it’s worth it when you find wines you love at prices you can’t believe.
Some wine nerds believe famed wine critic Robert Parker is to blame. They claim his career limited the variety of wine options we see today. Parker’s opinion drove tremendous sales volume. This put pressure on winemakers to cater to his taste. Parker’s influence focused the market on the Noble grapes we recognize everywhere today: Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Merlot, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, and Riesling.
But good wine is not determined by critic scores. Good wine is not about prices on a wine list. Good wine is about drinking wines you enjoy.
Once you learn what you enjoy about wine, you will discover a whole world of good wine.
Let’s Redefine Good Wine
Good wine is the ultimate nexus of relationships. Good wine connects us to people, food, nature, emotions and history. Bonds with friends are built by sharing good wine. Aromas and flavors are enhanced by good wine. Places in your memory and imagination are discovered by exploring good wine.
Finding the “right” wine for a meal or an occasion is as simple as picking a wine you enjoy. The best way to find wines that you like: drink lots of wine, pay attention and remember what you like.
Most importantly, don’t overthink it. Let your heart decide.
Wine is intimidating. There is intentional intimidation. Wine brands and distributors use marketing strategies to create the impression of sophistication and scarcity. And there is unintentional intimidation. Wine is a commodity with hundreds of years of commerce. When you make and market a product around the world, the collision of languages and regional business practices will create confusion.
Most consumers are not confident around wine. People feel underqualified when they don’t taste the “wet stone” the sommelier describes. No one wants to be embarrassed ordering a “bad” bottle at a table of family and friends. People are hesitant to pronounce forgein names. It’s hard to remember translations or how each region markets their wine.
There is a lot about wine to simplify and explain, but we need to educate by teaching not preaching. We need to tear down the barriers of understanding and the relics of intimidation. We need to build consumer confidence in good wine.
The craft beer industry offers a blueprint for consumer education and confidence. In 2010, very few people understood distinctions in different beer styles, production methods or label features, like IBUs. The craft beer industry made their drink approachable – even as they added sophistication.
Bad wine is not real wine. Real wine is created from the realities of nature. The production and consumption of bad wine leaves a wake of damage. Bad wine prioritizes profits over human and environmental health. When you make real wine with the assets nature provides us, you create a better tasting wine for better health.
Good wine is good for people and the planet.
Let’s make a future with roots in the past
The modern world is a cool place. We enjoy more luxuries and fewer problems than at any other time in history.
But this new world comes at a cost.
Our health is paying for the disconnect between our old world and modern comforts. We are pumping new compounds into our foods and drinks. We are pouring new chemicals into our water and environment. We are finding new ways to not move our bodies – even though our bodies are designed to move.
Our health craves the old way of doing things.
Wine is no exception. Even if you’re conscious of what you put in your body, you probably don’t realize what is in your wine. How could you? Wine labels only reveal a few details. You see the type of grape, the amount of alcohol and a warning about sulfites. You would have no idea that the United States now allows more than 70 additives to hide in that wine. Even the type of grape is misleading. You only need to use that type of grape for 75% of the wine. The laws allow the rest of the wine to be made of a secret blend.
The modern world lost its way with wine.
It’s time to recover forgotten varieties of grapes and reestablish traditional wine-making methods. Let’s go on a mission to rediscover good wine.
Good wine should connect you to the world. Each sip should bring you closer to the people you are with, enhance the flavors you enjoy and transport you to the places you love.
We need to search for the lost roots of wine. I’m taking about a pivotal turning point in the long history of wine. In the mid 1800s, a plague of root-eating insects called phylloxera swept across Europe. By 1900, almost 75% of France’s vineyards were lost.
There was only one solution for stopping the insects. European grapes were grafted on to root systems of North American grapes. To this day, the majority of the vineyards in Europe are growing out of North American root systems. Europe’s vineyards lost their roots. The phylloxera outbreak was a turning point. The demand for wine grew into today’s $350 billion industry, but the industry lost touch of its roots.
Let’s join together to search – not only the world – but also history for the best-tasting wine. We have 8,000 years of winemaking and an entire globe to discover wines you’ll love.
Wines sourced with affordable prices. Wines crafted with character. Wines made the way nature intended.
Wine Sharing Time
When you find these wines, you have to let me know. Send me a message on Instagram @justin_root_.
Also published on Medium.