Costs and Benefits of Additives
Somehow, even while taking a pass on the latest aromatic yeast strains and secret nutrient sauces, a plucky band of them manage to make good wine, year after year, relying mainly on the virtues of great fruit and rigorous sanitation. My survey was hardly exhaustive, but it did suggest that top-notch wine can indeed be produced without an ingredient list that reads like the ingredients box on the back of a can of pork and beans—“Grapes, selected yeast strains, diammonium phosphate, N-acetylmuramide glycanhydrolase, pectinases, hydrolysable ellagitannins, teinturier distillate, diatomaceous earth, inert gases.”
The vast majority of commercial wineries, however, use some or all of the above ingredients—and quite a few others as well. It can’t be that 99% of the winemakers are idiots, or have been taken for a ride by additive reps with charming French accents, or were brainwashed by demonic instructors at UC Davis. More likely, they have their own good reasons. But from time to time, it’s good to examine exactly why wineries invest in trainloads of these products, how much they invest and whether some products are indispensable.
I did two rounds of phone interviews to explore these issues, first to a quartet of major fermentation products suppliers, which have both an overview of and a vested interest in this market, and then to a quintet of veteran winemakers who have picked and chosen among the bewildering number of offerings over the years, asking them what they use and why.
Pennies per gallon
But first, what do all these packaged picker-uppers cost? Are they a significant factor in any winery’s budgeting? Are the nature-lovers just spending their money on grapes and laughing all the way to the bank?
I looked through the catalogs and price lists from Scott Laboratories, Gusmer, Laffort and Enartis Vinquiry, all major suppliers to the industry. Yeast prices range widely, reflecting the different costs of production of standard, generic strains and specialized, niche strains; a kilogram might cost anywhere from about $35 to just under $200. Malolactic bacteria cultures are the priciest ingredient, somewhere around $550 for enough freeze-dried starter to convert 6,500 gallons of wine. Enzymes for clarification, extraction, maceration and other purposes are all over the map, from $30 to $250 per kilo. Even lowly bentonite might cost $20 for a 50-pound sack, and wineries often go through lots and lots of sacks.
By the bag or box, some of these prices are a bit daunting, and when harvest is on the horizon and the order for processing aids comes to several thousand dollars, it can be enough to give pause before signing the check. But when the price tag is broken down into cost per ton of grapes or per bottle or gallon of wine, the figures aren’t that alarming. The fanciest yeasts come in well under 20 cents per gallon, and the basic strains work out to around 3 or 4 cents. That $600 sachet of malolactic bacteria does its thing for about two cents per bottle; enzymes might run between $2 and $8 per ton—meanwhile the grapes themselves could cost up to a thousand times as much.
As I was totaling up the numbers, it occurred to me that all the additives anyone could imagine using would end up costing less than the bottle the wine goes into, and it turns out that’s the same comparison used by José Santos, business director for Enartis Vinquiry. “The cost of following a full winemaking protocol using Enartis products would be around 50 cents per liter, less than the cost of packaging materials.” From the winemakers I talked to, the highest per-bottle estimate was 60 cents—from Steve Pessagno, who sells those bottles for $35 and up.
The fact that processing aid costs are modest on a per-bottle basis, however, doesn’t mean that wineries don’t give them any thought. Aside from the preferences of individual winemakers, producers of a million cases of $8 wine are likely to approach these expenditures differently than a 2,000-case producer of $40 wines.
Zack Scott of Scott Labs says that for the truly large producers of mass-market wines, every cent counts, and so the decision to spend money has to be justified by either the potential to increase quality or lower costs. An investment in enzymes, for example, can increase juice volume and reduce refrigeration costs. At the large end, being cost-conscious doesn’t automatically mean scrimping; high-production users are focused on consistency and standardization in their product lines and will pay good money to keep it that way. José Santos says that the biggest customer in the world for Enartis’ second-highest-priced enological tannin, costing $700 per kilo, is a large Portuguese winery whose flagship bottle sells for less than $5.
The small-to-medium tier of wineries, which Zack Scott thinks of as 20,000 to 200,000 cases, are the “heart and soul” of the business, and are dedicated to making the best wine they can. If their wine programs need a bag of something, they go get it, and hang the price. The smallest wineries include some who zero in on the quality of their fruit and practice hand-crafted winemaking, using fewer additives, and some for whom the initial cost of certain products—no matter how few pennies a bottle they add—can run up against a cash-flow barrier.
OK, winemaki ng additives won’t break the bank, but still, why use so many of them? Weren’t they mostly developed to cure problems with fermentations that had to use bad fruit—over-cropped, under-ripe, diluted, nutrient-poor, moldy stuff? Does anyone really need all these vinous aids with clean, balanced, ripe fruit? In California, for example, do we really have color problems in most of our red grapes? Does the rest of the world laugh at California wines for their wimpy color? Would Napa Cabs look like Provençal rosé except for the enzyme injections?
I expected the supplier reps to say their products were useful, and they did just that. “These are tools of the trade and are widely used to bring out different expressions and varietal attributes from the grape,” says Rodger Pachelbel of Gusmer. “Some help to facilitate processing, some help with stability, some help to hone flavor, aroma or mouthfeel. They are a means to assure the quality of the wine and make sure it shows at its best.”
All the suppliers I talked to agreed that sometimes, some folks may not need all the supplements they toss into their wines. But for the most part, they see their customers as motivated by some combination of four factors: 1) fear—prevention of stuck fermentations and spoilage; 2) concern for efficiency—settling wine more quickly, turning tanks, shorter malolactic fermentation times before major sulfur additions; 3) stylistic control—including steering the same lot of grapes in more than one direction; and 4) sheer routine—the relief that comes from not having to think through every new batch of fruit from scratch when it comes into the cellar.
This last consideration—the power of routine—deserves a special highlight. Winemakers are used to these products and see them as tools for consistent, known-quantity wines that get to the bottle under their control. It usually takes some kind of cellar surprise—a batch that goes bad, a product that fails to perform as advertised, a wine that comes out just fine without much biochemical assistance—for them to change protocols.
I pushed the supplier reps on the particular issue of possibly superfluous color enzymes, and they pushed back. Peter Salamone at Laffort, who admits he’s “an enzyme guy” by training and background, was typical in saying, “Color enzymes aren’t just for color, they also get flavor and aroma compounds from the same place as the color, from the vacuoles of the skins.”
Salamone also noted that, “Enzymes got a bad reputation early on, since the first ones were really apple enzymes, not the right stuff for wine, which was a much smaller market.”
Perhaps the most surprising comments (for me, at least) came from José Santos of Enartis, a native of Portugal with experience elsewhere in Europe, who only recently relocated to the United States. Contradicting my romantic misbelief that Europe was still full of little old winemakers who followed the time-honored ways, Santos insisted that the European fine wine producers are much more enthusiastic adopters of new technologies and products than their U.S. counterparts, and that the French lead the world in using these materials. Good to have some perspective.
Winemakers chime in
Not having the time or the funding to survey several thousand winemakers, I called five of them (pulled out of a hat) who have been in the business long enough to have tried just about everything and to have decided what they want to use and why: David Akiyoshi of Lange Twins in Lodi, Calif., with a background at Mondavi; Steve Pessagno of Pessagno Winery in Monterey, with many years at production-oriented Lockwood on his resumé; David Whiting of Red Newt Cellars in the Finger Lakes, N.Y., with 25 years of commercial winemaking under his belt; Kirk Venge of Venge Vineyards in Napa for nearly a decade, and Jerome Chery, who trained in Burgundy, with stints at important California operations, and now winemaker at Saintsbury since 2004.
I didn’t plan it this way, but my fivesome offered a nice cross-section of additive attitudes, from avid proponents to near-naturalists. For most of these winemakers, pulling things off the menu of additives is just part of the job. Whiting describes his as a “pretty mainstream program,” and says “the stakes are too high not to be cautious and conservative.” Considering the value of the product, the potential impact of action or inaction, and the time savings, he says that most of his winemaking decisions “are no-brainers.” Steve Pessagno thinks that “all this stuff, all the costs, are just part of good, sound winemaking protocols.”
All of these winemakers order their additives a la carte, using some treatments and skipping others. Most rely on commercial yeast strains...except when they don’t: Saintsbury’s Brown Ranch Chardonnay is barrel-fermented wild, and Lange Twins does both some Pinot Noir and some Chardonnay with native fermentations. Kirk Venge does natural alcoholic fermentations as standard practice, but he encourages them with nutrient additions; his malolactic ferments are generally wild, too, except for problem lots and for his Zinfandels, for which a cultured malolactic starter helps keep VA levels down.
Jerome Chery pays good money for malolactic bacteria to get that step done ASAP in order to allow for SO2 protection; Steve Pessagno typically uses only a fraction of the standard ML bacterial starter and sees his MLs complete in May or June, without sulfur. Saintsbury uses enzymes in some red fermentations; Pessagno uses pectinase enzymes for extraction but not color enzymes; Venge uses enzymes on some early season reds and on lots for which he wants to hasten extraction and press early. David Akiyoshi at Lange Twins doesn’t use enzymes, period, and hasn’t found a need for malolactic nutrients, either.
Akiyoshi articulated most clearly what he called an “old school” orientation toward winemaking, in which fermentations are managed to achieve certain goals without heavy reliance on additives as a “crutch.” “We use all the tools when needed to make the best wines possible,” he says. “We just prefer not to use them. The more you add, the more similar your wines are.”
And speaking of using tools when you need them, nearly everyone I talked to—suppliers and winemak er alike—mentioned that in this year of problematic harvests all up and down the West Coast, the oak-chip-and-enzyme business would be thriving. This year’s strange fruit, for example, motivated Kirk Venge to try oak chip additions to fermentations for the first time, in hopes of combating green flavors and botrytis influence. “If you do things the same way all the time,” he says, “you lose the chance to make something great or learn something important.”
Just as there is no one recipe for “natural” winemaking, there is no single protocol for the use of wine additives. Believe it or not, my random survey suggested that most winemakers actually think before they open the bags, run trials and do most things for a good reason.
Tim Patterson is the author of “Home Winemaking for Dummies.” He writes about wine and makes his own in Berkeley, Calif. Years of experience as a journalist, combined with a contrarian streak, make him interested in getting to the bottom of wine stories, casting a critical eye on conventional wisdom in the process.