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Asimov Celebrates CA Wines’ Diversity, O’Donnell Proposes to End It

Eric AsimovIt’s been an interesting week. On June 13, Eric Asimov writing in the New York Times [log-in required] said, “”The polarizing years of California wine are over” and “now California can be characterized by its stylistic diversity.” Seven days later, Ben O’Donnell writing for made the argument that, “ California, chaptalization—the addition of sugar during fermentation—has long been illegal. It’s time to change that.” Cue face palm.

In his NY Times article Asimov (pictured at right) acknowledged that “a careful search could have always turned up producers who valued finesse and subtlety but were largely ignored by critics.” However, the perception of California wines as a whole was driven by “those dominant styles [that] gave the impression of a monochromatic wine culture, in which more was good and even more was better.” He added that, in addition to a new generation of winemakers who are marching to their own beat, a broader range of consumer preferences is giving new California wine styles a boost. He also pointed out that “the public is less reliant on two or three dominant wine critics who essentially share the same perspective.”

Enter Wine Spectator. Ben O’Donnell mused, “Today, winemakers can coax out their vision of a site and grape using a near-infinite permutation of fermentation styles, yeast regimens, rack-and-return cycles, chemical preservatives, acid enhancements, bleeding off, spinning out, reverse osmosis, Flash-Détente concentration, artificial coloring and the addition of sugar via grape concentrate anyway... Why do we let an antiquated rule keep chaptalization out of the California winemaker's quiver?”

adam-lee-of-siduri-and-novy-family-wineriesO’Donnell’s argument, guided at least in part by Siduri winemaker Adam Lee (left), is that some winemakers have found the need to chaptalize California wines from cool climate regions in difficult years. The winemakers have done so illegally because they believed it to be better for the wine and more transparent to terroir than would have been the legal addition of grape concentrate. However, even Lee said there have been only three vintages (’99, ’05 and ’11) in the last 15 years that were lean enough to justify chaptalization, he did so with a delicate touch and it's really Syrah not Pinot Noir or Chardonnay he's concerned about. O'Donnell appears to be genuine in his desire to help great, cool regions through tough years. But, do we really want to change state law because, once in every six years, one variety from a few particular vineyards yield wine a few particular winemakers find too lean?

O’Donnell argues the law is no longer necessary, it’s a vestige of the bad old days. “The law against chaptalization dates back to a time when California wine was mostly big business... Growers were at the mercy, or often lack thereof, of corporate wineries... In the old days, imprecise viticulture, among other factors, made it harder and costlier to ripen grapes, and growers were rewarded with bonuses for high sugar levels—an advantage that obviously disappeared if the winery could just add sugar itself.”

News flash, California wine is still dominated by big business. Sure, there are a lot of great, small wineries such as those heralded in the NY Times article. But, as Asimov points out, “Most make small amounts of wine, and so particular bottles are often difficult to find.” Of course, there are also many moderately-sized wineries, including Siduri, that do a fine job.

Yet, as Paul Franson reported in Wines & Vines from last Fall’s Wine Industry Financial Symposium, “the top 10 wine companies produced 222 million cases in 2011, up 7% from 2010. These companies have been making acquisitions, mostly with cash, to buy vineyards and winemaking facilities.” 222 million cases was 85% of the total 260.6 cases California wineries shipped in 2011. And that’s just the top ten producers. Not included in that 222 million are big boys like Bogle, Charles Krug, Beaulieu, Sterling, Korbel and Fetzer. How does one define “mostly big business?”

320px-Sugar cubesSure, winegrowers now have multiple tools to better ripen grapes. But insufficient grape supply is an issue these days for big wineries due to the combination of growing demand, “difficult” years and vineyard replanting. Doesn’t it seem likely that top producers would find legal chaptalization a compelling option if it allowed them to push growers for higher volume at lower ripeness and then cheaply add strength with sugar?

Then there’s the issue of those unique, cool-climate growing regions. They are prized because of the personality that is reflected in wines made by tiny producers and the Siduri’s alike who truly care about both quality and typicity. Legal chaptalization would allow mega-producers to more profitably use grapes—and offer at lower prices—AVA-specific wines from regions like the Sonoma Coast and the Santa Lucia Highlands. I doubt chaptalization would be used only in the coolest of vintages. Mass producers’ volume and marketing power, leveraging the caché of prestigious regions, could push small makers out of those regions or even out of business. Growers would be increasingly dependent on the volume producers. Resulting wines would be hard pressed to reflect the regions’ unique qualities as do small production bottlings. This would be a lose, lose, lose, lose scenario for small wineries, growers, cool climate AVAs and, ultimately, consumers.

There’s no indication that the 2011 vintage is “the new normal” rather than just an aberration. Global warming trends indicate most parts of California will find high sugars easier to reach, not harder. If some producers have so keenly felt the need to chaptalize that they did so in violation of the law, let them continue to do so. There are times when jaywalking is both necessary and prudent, but using that as an excuse to legalize jaywalking would lead to chaos and tragedy.

Blake Gray has a different take on why legalizing chaptalization in California is a terrible idea, suggesting that chaptalization would lead to voluptuous, famous-critic-courting wines from areas that should produce elegance. I agree with his argument and it echoes Asimov's sentiments about "even more is better" wines. So let’s add my plea to theirs, stop any talk of legalizing chaptalization, turn the occasional blind eye and try to forget anyone brought up the idea.

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This article is original to Copyright 2013 NorCal Wine. Sugar cube photo: Uwe Hermann All rights reserved.