Wine and food are naturally a pair.
As taste mates they play off of and bring out the best in each other.
It’s a damn celebration when they work perfectly together. In New York at least we love our sommeliers as much as the chefs at our favorite haunts.
Yet they live in separate worlds.
Food menus are like concrete poetry for the soul addressing food allergies and ethical eating beliefs all in one:
“A mix of organic baby lettuces lightly tossed with cold-pressed, biodynamic olive oil served with wild caught Icelandic salmon and hand-made gluten-free quinoa pasta.”
The wine, which often makes the dinner, is just well—for most everyone—a grape and place and price.
Even in the hands of the best wine writer—descriptions often feel like a stilted Tweet—smart, code like and holding back not by intent as much as by the narrowness of the language itself.
This post is about raising the issues of transparency and additives, about certificates and categories—about addressing wine from an ingredient perspective as we do with food as one part of its uniqueness.
About how by embracing the foodness quality of wine and market demands for disclosure, we bring into the discussion shared beliefs with the consumer on their own terms, and broaden, not narrow the conversations we can have.
Ground zero for this change are wine labels themselves.
Think about it.
When I pour something from Sandi Skerk in Carso with friends, I get effusive about the taste, about the pure organic nature of the vineyard, the uniqueness of that grape and the ungrafted nature of the vines. The ineffable balance of climate, soil, grape and the winemaker’s decisions.
I’ll talk about the why of skin contact and whether there is added SO2. And if my guests are vegan, whether something is used in fining or in the vineyard that would concern them.
If I read on a label that this was a Vitovska from Carso, classified Organic, Sulfites Added it tells me almost nothing. It’s a line on a pill bottle not a descriptor that carries the same information on a menu as above.
This is a huge opportunity to create shared language with the consumers and the market.
It’s also a bit of a loaded topic.
Categories like GMOs, Vegan, Gluten free are core to the food we eat at the very best restaurants but devoid from the wine world and the vernacular of talking with winelovers.
It’s interesting as there are no rules here to guide us. We are talking not about what is required on labels (DOC, alcohol %) but about what we can put there if we desire.
This is not at all simple.
A bottle of wine is not a Jersey tomato or a gluten free Bialy with sprouted sunflower seeds. It’s more but it is still an agricultural product.
Understandably people in the trade are nervous about this.
I’m fully aware that what you say implies who you are and what you say, shouts what you aren’t.
If you state that your wine is made from organic grapes, hand harvested with nothing added except nature and your stewardship—what are you saying to your customers?
If you decide as my friend Fabio of Vinos Ambiz did on his new label and lay out his entire philosophy of winemaking, what’s the message?
What if you put on the label what Sophie of Sophie’s Glass says about Renaud Bruyere that he doesn’t make natural wine because of a philosophical belief but because he simply doesn’t need to add all that shit?
What if a few thousand natural winemakers decided to simply list what they add to the juice other than their own decisions—which in many cases in nothing–what will happen?
The times are already changing.
And at least two impacts will ricochet across the wine world over time.
First, by respecting the intelligence of the consumer, people will get smarter by exposure.
Most people will look at facts like some winemakers add sugar to increase the alcohol percent as an aha piece of information. How about that winemakers can legally add any one of over a hundred additives without disclosing anything to the buyer? The consumer will get smarter faster and the more they understand, the broader the connections and conversations will become.
And second, this will turn on the spotlight brightly on those that don’t decide to disclose what they do add. It will also create clarity around certifications like Organic that discloses nothing to what is really done or added once the grapes are picked.
This is goodness for everyone. A gift in the form of a few square inches on the bottle to thousands of small wine producers selling millions dollars of wine to the enthusiast markets.
Wine is more than the sum of its parts certainly. And as food, more than the ingredients that compose it. Even more so of course.
But its overdue time for it to be seen at one level for what it is—an agricultural product–albeit a very special one.
This change is coming whether winemakers choose to drive it now, or forced on them later down the road in the form of government compromise, endless red tape and yet more certifications.
My thought–do it now.
Use it as an opportunity to give the consumer what they want in their language on your own terms.
In this instance, it is both the right thing and the smart thing to do.