The Dark Side of Wine

An excerpt from the 1999 edition of Parker's Wine Buyer's Guide.

WEB-ONLY SIDEBAR | December 2000

"The Dark Side of Wine"

Parker's Wine Buyer's Guide

by Robert M. Parker Jr.

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The Growing International Standardization of Wine Styles
Although technology allows winemakers to produce better and better quality wine, the continuing obsession with technically perfect wines is unfortunately stripping wines of their identifiable and distinctive character. Whether it is the excessive filtration of wines or the excessive emulation of winemaking styles, it seems to be the tragedy of modern winemaking that it is now increasingly difficult to tell an Italian Chardonnay from one made in France or California or Australia. When the corporate winemakers of the world begin to make wines all in the same way, designing them to offend the least number of people, wine will no doubt lose its fascinating appeal and individualism to become no better than most brands of whiskey, gin, scotch, or vodka. One must not forget that the great appeal of wine is that it is a unique, distinctive, fascinating beverage and different every time one drinks it. Winemakers and the owners of wineries, particularly in America, must learn to take more risks so as to preserve the individual character of their wines, even at the risk that some consumers may find them bizarre or unusual. It is this distinctive quality of wine that will ensure its future.


Destroying the Joy of Wine by Excessive Acidification, Overzealous Fining, and Abrasive Filtration

Since the beginning of my career as a professional wine critic, I have tried to present a strong case against the excessive manipulation of wine. One look at the world's greatest producers and their wines will irrefutably reveal that the following characteristics are shared by all of them -- whether they be California, France, Italy, Spain, or Germany. 1) They are driven to preserve the integrity of the vineyard's character, the varietal's identity, and the vintage's personality. 2) They believe in low crop yields. 3) Weather permitting, they harvest only physiologically mature (versus analytically ripe) fruit. 4) Their winemaking and cellar techniques are simplistic in the sense that they are minimal interventionists, preferring to permit the wine to make itself. 5) While they are not opposed to fining or filtration if the wine is unstable or unclear, if the wine is made from healthy, ripe grapes, is stable and clear, they will absolutely refuse to strip it by excessive fining and filtration at bottling.

Producers who care only about making wine as fast as possible and collecting their accounts receivable quickly also have many things in common. While they turn out neutral, vapid, mediocre wines, they are also believers in huge crop yields, with considerable fertilization to promote massive crops, as large as the vineyard can render (6 or more tons per acre, compared to modest yields of 3 tons per acre). Their philosophy is that the vineyard is a manufacturing plant and cost efficiency dictates that production be maximized. They rush their wine into bottle as quickly as possible in order to get paid. They believe in processing wine, such as centrifuging it initially, then practicing multiple fining and filtration procedures, particularly a denuding sterile filtration. This guarantees that the wine is lifeless but stable, a goal where the ability to withstand temperature extremes and stand upright on a grocery store's shelf is given priority over giving the consumer a beverage of pleasure. These wineries harvest earlier than anybody else because they are unwilling to take any risk, delegating all questions regarding wine to their oenologists, who, they know, have as their objectives security and stability, which is at conflict with the consumer's goal of finding joy in wine.

The effect of excessive manipulation of wine, particularly overly aggressive fining and filtration, is dramatic. It destroys a wine's bouquet as well as its ability to express its terroir and varietal character. It also mutes the vintage's character. Fining and filtration can be lightly done, causing only minor damage, but most wines produced in the New World (California, Australia, and South America in particular), and most bulk wines produced in Europe are sterile-filtered. This procedure requires numerous pre-filtrations to get the wines clean enough to pass through a micropore membrane filter. This system of wine stability and clarification strips, eviscerates, and denudes a wine of much of its character.

Some wines can suffer such abuse with less damage. Thick, tannic, concentrated, Syrah- and Cabernet Sauvignon-based wines may even survive these wine lobotomies, diminished in aromatic and flavor dimension but still alive. Wines such as Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are destroyed in the process.

Thanks to a new generation of producers, particularly in France, aided by a number of specialist importers from America, there has been a movement against unnecessary fining and filtration. One only has to look at the extraordinary success enjoyed by such American importers as Kermit Lynch and Robert Kacher to realize how much consumer demand exists for producers to bottle a natural, unfiltered, uncompromised wine that is a faithful representation of its vineyard and vintage. Most serious wine consumers do not mind not being able to drink the last half ounce of wine because of sediment. They know this sediment means they are getting a flavorful, authentic, unprocessed wine that is much more representative than one that has been stripped at bottling.

Other small importers who have followed the leads of Lynch and Kacher include Peter Weygandt of Weygandt-Metzler, Unionville, PA; Neal Rosenthal Select Vineyards, New York, NY; Eric Solomon of European Cellars, New York, NY; Don Quattlebaum of New Castle Imports, Myrtle Beach, SC; Fran Kysela of Kysela Père et Fils of Winchester, VA; Martine Saunier of Martine's Wines, San Rafael, CA; North Berkeley Imports, Berkeley, CA; Jorgé Ordonez, Dedham, MA; Leonardo LoCascio, Hohokus, NJ; Dan Phillips, Oxnard, CA; Ted Schrauth, West Australia; John Larchet, Australia; Jeffrey Davies, West Nyack, NY; and Alain Junguenet, Watchung, NJ; to name some of the best known. They often insist that their producers not filter those wines shipped to the United States, resulting in a richer, more age-worthy wine being sold in America than elsewhere in the world. Even some of our country's largest importers, most notably Kobrand, Inc., in New York City, are encouraging producers to move toward more gentle and natural bottling techniques.

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Robert M. Parker Jr. writes Parker's Wine Buyer's Guide.

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