Ridge Vineyards is adding ingredients to its back labels.
“Simplicity is the final achievement. After one has played a vast quantity of notes and more notes, it is simplicity that emerges as the crowning reward of art.” – Chopin
The premise is this, that if the raw materials are there, and they’re good, then not that much else is needed.
Son House and a National
Basho and seventeen syllables.
Rothko and red.
Kerouac and an Underwood.
Anonymous Four and Hildegard von Bingen.
Chopin and a piano.
Tenshō Shūbun and ink.
If you’re familiar with it, then you either curse it as a devil, or praise it as a god, but whatever your feelings, it’s hard to dispute the truth of Pro Tools and the music industry.
It changed everything. Can’t sing in tune? Pro Tools has you covered. Can’t play in time? Pro Tools has a drum loop just for you. Third verse should have been the first? Pro Tools can shift that around for you. Need a piano part, but no one in the band plays piano? Pro Tools. Real marimba cost too much? Pro Tools.
And so on.
I may sound cynical, but I’m no Luddite. I was working with Todd Rundgren in San Francisco back in the very early nineties, on an interactive music project. We were still in the CD-Rom days then. I was there at the beginning. I recorded an entire album on ADAT when it was only me and the Grateful Dead team using them. And while my first album was on analog tape, my last one was with Pro Tools.
There is a great story about Pro Tools.
The setting? A music production conference. All producers and engineers. No rock stars, just tech geeks. Pro Tools was looming on the horizon; to some, it was the beginning; to others, the end. A team of designers gave a talk. They extolled the virtues of what Pro Tools could and would do. It was controversial. People shouted, friendships collapsed, factions formed. In the middle of it all, a seasoned veteran stood up. The place quieted down. He had a lot of gold records. When it was down to silence, he pointed to himself, and said the word, “Pro.” Then he held up a razor, and said “Tools.” And he walked out.
Buffalo Springfield’s “Broken Arrow” famously took some 60+ takes to create, with all the different sections spliced together; this was how it was done in the old days; tape and a razor. And yes, this was manipulation of a kind, but what’s important is that EVERY note on the final recording is a REAL note, played by a real person, using a real instrument. The song was assembled from native parts, and raw material.
Just like Monte Bello is assembled.
Ridge Vineyards has elected to include an ingredients list on its labels. Here is Paul Draper on why:
At Ridge we call our approach to winemaking “pre-industrial”. We believe that for anyone attempting to make fine wine, modern additives and invasive processing limit true quality and do not allow the distinctive character of a fine vineyard to determine the character of the wine.
Ridge is adding to its labels a list of actions and ingredients to demonstrate how little intervention is necessary to produce a fine, terroir-driven wine from distinctive fruit.
This is philosophy, and this is principle. And this is reason enough.
But not the only reason. Consider safety and health.
Did you know that The TTB (Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau) has approved over 60 different additives for use in wine? Some are fairly benign of course, but some are not. Consider Velcorin. It’s approved. And here is just a sampling of what our friends over at PinotBlogger.com found out about it:
Special Remarks on other Toxic Effects on Humans:
Acute Potential Health Effects:
Skin: Causes skin irritation.
Eyes: Exposure to vapor or mist will cause eye irritation.
Inhalation: Inhalation of vapor or mist may be irritating to mucous membranes and upper respiratory tract.
May affect behavior/central nervous system. Symptoms may include somnolence, tremor.
May also affect respiratory system (dyspnea), and metabolism
Ingestion: May cause gastrointestinal tract irritation.
The toxicological properties of this substance have not been fully investigated.
Want to see all the additives currently approved? Click here to review the TTB’s website.
There is also taste. Do you know what Mega Purple is? It’s concentrate, essentially. Cheap grape concentrate. Sold for about $135/gallon, and added to so many wines it’d make your head spin to see them all. Not enough color in your wine? Mega Purple can fix that. Not enough body? Mega Purple can fix that too. Don’t like the final texture? Mega Purple it. Need some sweetness? Mega Purple again. Oops, bit of Brett get in there? Mega Purple can mask that. Mega Purple: You can put that s*$t on everything.
Dan Berger contributed a great article on the use of Mega Purple in Wines & Vines magazine; you can read it here.
The first wines were made—or, better said, made themselves—some 8000 years ago between the Caspian and Black Seas in the area that today includes eastern Turkey, northern Iran, Georgia, and Armenia. We can surmise that early hunter-gatherers picked wild grapes. Occasionally, instead of eating them, they may have crushed them for juice and perhaps forgotten them for a week or two. Attracted to the sugar, bees and wasps would have carried yeasts to grapes already broken on the vine by birds or wind; those yeasts fermented the juice. When tasted, it had been transformed—as if by magic or a divine hand—from simple, sweet fruit into something affecting the senses in surprising and enjoyable ways. In the Christian ritual of Communion, this natural transformation became a symbol for wine as the blood of Christ.
Thus begins a new essay from Ridge Vineyards entitled “What’s In A Wine?”. It’s heady stuff at first glance, but upon closer inspection, it’s real, it’s direct, and it’s now. Consider a Ridge Vineyards label:
It’s right there at the letter C. “Yeasts brought to broken, mature berries by bees and wasps.” Just like before Jesus.
But consider all the letters:
A-D are pretty straightforward; not a great deal being done by us in the way of invasion or manipulation. Cutting each cluster by hand? Well, short of waiting for the cluster to fall off of its own volition, that’s about as minimalist as is possible if your intention is to produce wine. Farming practices that protect environment, workers, and community? Well, that certainly involves some proactivity, and verdicts on the methods are certainly subjective. For Ridge, we define sustainability like this:
A system that is sensitive to the environment, responsible to the community, and economically feasible to implement and maintain. These three principles provide a framework and direction to guide our decision-making. Sustainability is an ever-changing target, even a state of mind: improvements can always be made to lessen one’s impact on the planet.
Integrated pest management. Beneficial crop cover. Organic farming. Sap Flow Monitoring.
These are just a few examples. For more, please click here.
C we already discussed. D is pretty much the same. What’s needed is already there. We rely on that, and nothing more. But E is an addition, this is true. How invasive is it? Go back to that TTB list of approved additives. Notice anything? Calcium Carbonate is one of very few items without a restriction associated with it. Why? Because it’s harmless. It’s basically Alka-Seltzer for wine. Settles the acid a bit.
And then we come to F. This is the big one. This is the Firestarter. S02. If there is a line that separates “Natural Wine” from whatever ostensibly isn’t, it’s probably drawn in S02.
The matter of S02 is probably one of the most misunderstood issues in the contemporary world of wine, and truth be told, I’m not going even come close to solving the mysteries here. What I am hopefully going to do is clarify the language of F.
Smallest S02 addition needed to maintain vineyard character.
What does that mean? Or, more specifically perhaps, how much is smallest, and how does that maintain character?
Thomas Ulrich wrote a tremendous article in Wines & Vines recently (January 2013), entitled “Going Native, Very Carefully.” In it, Ridge Vineyards winemaker Eric Baugher details with astonishing specificity our winemaking processes, and in particular, our handling of S02. To the question of how much, there is this:
“The winery team adds 30-35 ppm of SO2 to the must (at crush) to select for native Saccharomyces and limit the growth of bacteria that could spoil malolactic fermentation.”
“To reduce the risk of oxidizing or spoiling the wine, the winery team adds small amounts of SO2 before crush, immediately following the completion of malolactic fermentation and during each quarterly racking thereafter. According to Baugher, a small dose of sulfur dioxide is 5-10 ppm. For him, the amount of SO2 depends on pH and residual sugar-aldehyde formation produced by any in-barrel springtime fermentation.”
To get at some of the technical detail above, I direct you to an excellent article by Shea A.J. Comfort; you can find it here. In the meantime, to get to the real nitty-gritty, the important thing to know is this: ppm stands for parts-per-million. Parts-per-million. Meaning, 30-35 ppm is … not much. Numerous sources will confirm that the total SO2 allowed in wine in the US is 350 ppm, and in the EU it is 160 ppm (for red wines). So again, 30-35ppm is … not so much.
So why add it at all? This is where the “maintain vineyard character” part comes in. Paul Draper spoke to the issue in an excellent interview posted on Alice Feiring’s site “The Feiring Line.” Consider the following, excerpted from said interview:
The difference of opinion over natural wine often occurs over the use of SO2. Of course we have the problem that EU regulations allow an addition of 10ppm and US regulations allow 0ppm addition for “organic” wine. That problem is really beside the point as an addition of 10ppm in virtually every case is insufficient to keep the natural process on the proverbial straight and narrow in order that the wine will consistently express the distinct character and quality of its site. Of course that presupposes that the site is sufficiently good terroir to provide that character and quality in the first place. My experience of growing fine wine and of tasting wines made with 0ppm to 10ppm is that unless the minimum effective level of SO2 is used the wines will not consistently express terroir. Given that, that expression or the attempt at that expression is essential to what I love about wine, we carefully analyze the wine to determine that effective minimum level.
If I can offer a translation of sorts, I believe the gist to be this: At Ridge, we add just enough S02 to PREVENT anything changing the flavor of the juice, as opposed to adding S02 specifically TO change the flavor of the juice.
And that is the A to F of a Ridge label.
We provide other resources as well. Consider a “typical” wine page on our website, say, for the newly-released 2011 Ridge Vineyards Geyserville (the wine whose label we analyzed above). Scroll down the page, and you’ll find this:
All estate-grown grapes, hand harvested. Destemmed and crushed. Fermented on the native yeasts, followed by full malolactic on the naturally-occurring bacteria. 16.9mg/ liter calcium carbonate added to ten small fermentors to moderate acidity; minimum effective sulfur (30 ppm at crush; 92 ppm over the course of aging). Pad filtered at bottling. In keeping with our philosophy of minimal intervention, this is the sum of our actions.
We have considered health and safety. We have addressed taste. We have discussed terroir and vineyard character. There is also a bit of the activist behind it all. In a recent e-mail, Ridge winemaker Eric Baugher wrote the following, as regards additives and ingredient labeling:
We feel, by listing our ingredients, we can bring the issue into the consciousness of consumers. Not that we want to make enemies in the industry, or attack any wineries for what they might add to their wines, we are looking to consumers to become more knowledgeable about these additives and practices by volunteering this information on our labels. If they begin to make their purchasing decisions based on the level of purity of the wines they drink, then it possibly could have an effect on making those wineries think twice before they add something.
And in a letter Paul Draper recently penned on the matter, he wrote:
We refer to winemaking at Ridge as “pre-industrial” – an approach that involves the use of native yeasts, hand-harvested, sustainably grown grapes, naturally occurring malolactic bacteria, and a small number of natural ingredients used in making fine wine over the last two hundred years. We are hoping to encourage other fine-wine makers to provide a list of ingredients for their customers.
For more on Paul Draper and the concept of Pre-Industrial Winemaking, please click here, but for the purposes of this post, I hope the following definition will suffice:
Pre-industrial winemaking begins with respect for the natural process that transforms fresh grapes into wine, and the 19th-Century model of minimum intervention. When you have great vineyards that produce high quality grapes of distinctive individual character, this is not only an environmentally and socially responsible approach, it’s also the best way to consistently make fine wine.
The point is, in the end, it’s for you. We want your wine to be healthy and safe. We want it to taste good. We want it to be unique. And we want it to be honest. We want you to know the pro, and the tool.
We want the wine to be symbolic, and we want it to be transformative.
We want it to be Son House and a National; Basho and seventeen syllables; Rothko and red.; Kerouac and an Underwood; Anonymous Four and Hildegard Von Bingen; Monk and a piano; Tenshō Shūbun and ink.
Most of all, we want our wine, to be your wine.
Before the white chrysanthemum
the scissors hesitate
(Yosa Buson, translated by Robert Hass)