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Myths Challenge Industry Growth

February 2012
by Paul Franson
Many years ago, California winemakers convinced wine lovers that fine wines come in bottles and use corks. That campaign has come to hamper efforts to reduce costs, widen the market and even arguably improve some wines as increasing evidence demonstrates that inexpensive screwcaps are at least the equal of expensive corks for sealing wines.

Let’s look at some other myths the wine business has inflicted on consumers:

• The industry preached that varietal wines like Cabernet Sauvignon were superior to blends—even though virtually all top Bordeaux wines are blends, many without Cab.

• Wineries implied that red wine was better than white, not due to health claims but because it was inherently superior. They served Cabernet with oysters and goat cheese at wine dinners because they looked down their noses at even dry white wines.

• We were taught that the bitter tannins that made a high-quality wine undrinkable when young were necessary for a wine to age to greatness—and that the only great wines were the ones that aged, not bottles that tasted good when young.

• Wine marketers insisted that vintage-dated wines are better (while claiming that every year is a vintage year in California.)

• Dry wines are “better,” and consumers who don’t like them have unsophisticated palates. That automatically excluded many potential customers, who then turned to sweet cocktails.

• Winemakers reinforced that new oak is better, that low yields are better, that feral yeasts are better, that filtering and fining are bad, that hand-picked grapes are superior and that dehydrated grapes with high sugar levels make better wines.

• Some critics preached that low yields mean better wine, but research has demonstrated that reducing yields artificially doesn’t improve quality, it heightens vegetal flavors, which have to be overcome by letting the grapes overripen.

Serious challenges
Scientifically questionable claims continue, and some of these myths could hamstring the wine business during an era that presents perhaps more serious challenges than we’ve seen for decades.

The wine industry faces a period of increasing competition for water due to environmental concerns and population growth. The world’s climate is changing, and though it may not result in warming throughout all wine-growing regions, it already has in some, and it has certainly changed weather and precipitation patterns.

Xenophobia and upward aspirations of immigrant families threaten our labor supply; energy and materials costs are rising; new pests and diseases appear frequently to threaten our crops, and foreign suppliers increasingly encroach on what once was a mostly private preserve.

With these concerns looming, we need to use all the science and technology available to make better wines, not spend our time knocking enlightened approaches.

Younger consumers see through many of these myths already. The explosion of wine in screw-capped bottles, aseptic cartons, bladders in boxes and faux barrels, plastic bottles and even kegs have found wide acceptance among those who don’t believe wine has to be expensive or come in a heavy, fragile, environmentally suspect bottle sealed with a piece of bark to be desirable.

What consumers want
Wineries should listen to their consumers. The hottest trends in wine today are sweetish aromatic wines like Muscats, Rieslings, white blends and red blends—many off-dry. Rosés are also very popular; yet most wineries not only don’t make those wines, they make fun of people who like them. The wineries that do sell them—primarily large ones—are doing very well in a tough market.

Where I live in Napa Valley, visitors flock to V. Sattui, Castello di Amorosa and Sutter Home, which offer these sweet and aromatic wines (as well as more “conventional” dry wines.) Even at the venerable Robert Mondavi Winery, Muscat is one of the most asked-for wines in the tasting room. Winery hospitality personnel confirm that many people like lighter and sweeter wines, and some won’t even try big reds.

Winemakers have learned to make wonderful Cabernets that can be consumed in a short time. Now skeptics question if they’ll age. Who cares? A miniscule part of the market ages wine. Most should be made for drinking, not storing.

Wineries would be well served to aspire to make better wine and market it better, but not by perpetuating myths that could come to harm them. Wine is a wonderful gift and we should enjoy it, not load it down with outdated baggage.

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