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Sunday, February 15, 2015

The Magic Potions & Formulas of Wine - Part 1: Mass Appeal & Cover-ups

It's something that's not talked about much. The fact that wines, especially conglomerate American ones, are formulated to either have mass appeal or to get a high rating score isn't really something that the industry wants you to know about. It takes away from the romance. Wine is supposed to come from the Earth and be representative of that year's harvest, right? The winemaking process is just different strategies on fermenting and aging, right? LOLZ.

Witches Brew
Many people are shocked when they find out the stuff I'm about to go over and they tend to go into depression for a week. But when you get over the fact that wine is no longer just about the beauty and hard work of viticulture and the miracle of fermentation, and embrace that we live in the age of technology, information and marketing and virtually everything is "improved" upon, you might realize that it's not all that bad of a thing. In the end the purpose is to make good wine to enjoy... so you'll buy it.

Take California's extremely popular, top-selling Kendall-Jackson Reserve Chardonnay. People love it, although it's criticized by many wine professionals and self-proclaimed experts, but the fact is that it's a really tasty Chardonnay for the price. Word on the street is that it was also the first popular formulated (semi-)fine wine. They want it to taste the same every year, like the houses of Cognac and Scotch aim to do. They want you to enjoy it every year and they succeed every year, having an insane amount of people buy it by the case... every year. It's also a "gateway" wine, making people realize they like wine or that upgrading from $9 magnums and paying a little more money for a smaller bottle and better quality is worth it. Sure it's not complex and terroir driven or whatever your problem is with it, but what's wrong with a delicious wine that does an excellent job at making people wine lovers?

for·mu·la /fȯr-myə-lə\
: a plan or method for doing, making, or achieving something
: a list of the ingredients used for making something (such as a medicine or a drink)

This is a tough subject because it's something that has been kept secret for so long and is just starting to come out, with plenty of missing information. Paul Draper of Ridge Vineyards is the leader within the winemaking world that is leading the charge to have wineries voluntarily release their formula and additive secrets, while bloggers like myself are the ones making it known to the public that this stuff even goes down.

So I can't tell you yet exactly how these "formulas" and "recipes" are designed... but I can inform you on the following pieces to the puzzle. 

In Part One: Mass Appeal & Cover-ups I'll cover the inclusion of trending grapes to others, additives such as Gum Arabic, and how bulk wine producers take awful, high yield grapes to make wine that's drinkable. Part Two: Mega Purple & Enologix will cover grape concentrates like Mega Purple, modern equipment used to manipulate wine, and formulas to get high ratings from point system reviewers.


When Moscato had that huge record-breaking explosion, how many wines were out there labeled as just white blends? A whole friggin lot. And most of them were Chardonnay-Moscato blends, with Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc thrown in there sometimes too. Where are they now? Gone. Menage a Trois White might be the last one standing, and it should be because it's pretty good.

But something like that is to be expected. It's when you buy a Pinot Noir that tastes more like Petite Sirah that some people take issue with because it's misleading.

Blending trending grapes into wines where you don't expect it is just one of many ways to make wines that appeal to the masses. So say you buy a wine labeled as a Cabernet Sauvignon. If it's from California it only has to be 75% Cab to be labeled as one. Most of the time the remainder will be more Cab and small amounts of Merlot or Malbec or multiple grapes to improve on flavor, body, mouthfeel, etc. But when you make it 75% Cab and 25% Malbec, you're consciously playing to the Malbec crowd under the Cabernet name.

Overly Manly Man and Apothic Red
Apothic Red is a formulated blend that is also a top-selling powerhouse. It's a bulk wine done on a higher quality level that consistently takes blind tasters by surprise and snags up some pretty impressive reviews. Its success kicked off an enormous series of copycat Zinfandel blends a few years ago, even changing Deadbolt Red from a Cabernet based blend to a Zinfandel based blend (and disappointing their fans).

Bottles labeled as a single varietal were starting to obviously have Zinfandel added in large doses. This wasn't to improve on the wine, like adding 12% Merlot and 4% Cab Franc to a Cab Sauv, but to reel in those Zin blend drinkers.

The Zinfandel-in-everything trend jumped the shark after only a few vintages (thank goodness because I frickin hated it) and it was replaced by a much better decision. Producers started going with another grape that's in the Apothic blend... Petite Sirah. When wines are mostly made from Petite Sirah they're big and juicy and robust. So delicious and sexy it's ridiculous. When you add Petite Sirah to another varietal it rounds it out, gives it a lushness, adds dark fruit, and becomes highly attractive to everyday, average wine consumers.

Whether you're in the wine industry or just a wine lover then you must be aware of Meiomi Pinot Noir (formerly of the Belle Glos line). This is another wine that is beloved by the public but scoffed at by wine professionals and Pinot Purests especially. While I'm really not a fan of Apothic Red, I think Meiomi's Pinot Noir is lip-smacking delicious. I just wish it came with an asterisk after Pinot Noir.

United Vacations

Petite Sirah is so much bigger in body and richer in flavor than Pinot Noir that the PS that they add completely takes over. There's also, believe it or not, Riesling and Chardonnay in there. And people gobble it up thinking this is what Pinot Noir tastes like. I can't tell you how many times I've had customers tell me they love Pinot Noir, then point to Meiomi as one they like and then point to a 100% Pinot as an example of one they don't. So what I usually do is direct them to Michael David's Petite Petit (a Petite Sirah with a little Petit Verdot) and guarantee that they'll love that. And they always do.

You've got to be careful with California Pinot Noir these days if you don't want a Petite Sirah flavored Pinot. Russian River is trending big on the large PS injections in all price points, and I've noticed a lot of Napa bottles in the $20-$30 range get it too.

Another example of this trend is Carnivor Cabernet Sauvignon. Guess how much Petite Sirah is in that one? It tastes so much like Petite Sirah that it's silly. And guess how well it does at tastings? It flies out the door like bread before a blizzard. Petite Sirah is becoming the hero of the mass produced $9-12 red that straddles the line of bulk and fine wine. While it does kinda suck that something like that happens... better PS than Zin, in my opinion.


Super inexpensive $2 bottles, 3-for-$10 deal bottles, 3 & 4 liter jug wines and 5 liter box wines are manipulated the crap out of just to make them drinkable. The grapes that make those examples come from places like California's San Joaquin Valley (or the hotter grape growing parts of other countries like Chile and Australia), where the conditions and fertile soil allow the grape vines to produce enormous yields of grapes that don't make very good wine. Coloring is added, sugar from beets might be added on the downlow (probably not because it's illegal but it sure tastes like it's in there), pretty much anything that is going to make the wine consumable without immediate vomitus is added. These wines are usually pretty sweet, super thin and a chugger meant for the purposes of getting drunk. You won't be taking your time and jotting down tasting notes.

Additives aren't just in the cheap and mass produced stuff, though. The smaller produced, medium priced and high end stuff are also intentionally manipulated. Why would they do this? To create a consistent flavor or color, fix its faults, make it more appealing to the average person, even to make it drinkable younger or to make its shelf life longer.

Acacia sap
Gum Arabic is a gum made from the hardened sap of two species of acacia tree in the Sahel ecoclimate belt of Africa, which spans from Senegal on the west coast to Somalia on the east coast. It's used in food products as a stabilizer and is also used in paint, ink, glue, beauty products and textiles. Kind of a gross idea that it could be in your favorite wine, but it softens the tannins in reds and gives a silkiness to the mouthfeel. So it takes a strong, tannic wine that needs some aging and turns it into one that you can drink the same night you buy it.

I have no idea what the hell diammonium phosphate ammonium salts are. I searched and searched and searched for an explanation that didn't require me to have a degree in chemistry but couldn't find one. From what I can gather, which is surely wrong, it's a salt that dissolves in water and is created through a chemical reaction that involves ammonia? Maybe? Anyways, it's used to increase the pH level in fertilizer, as a fire retardant while ironically also being used for enhancing nicotine in cigarettes, and most importantly in wine to breathe life back into dying yeast and keep sulfur dioxide on a leash.

Sulfur Dioxide (AKA SO2) is a chemical compound that's floating all around you in the atmosphere, but in high concentrations it's toxic. When it's burned in its solid form it stinks, and is literally what you smell from a burning match. The Romans were the first to realize the benefits of adding it to wine. Sulfur stabilizes the wine, protects it from spoilage, and kills microbial baddies that are out to get you. So it is very very very rarely not in wine unless it was purposely taken out. It actually occurs naturally during the fermentation process but the majority of wineries add more like the Romans did, especially in Europe where it's more needed for stability. Sulfur Dioxide is wrongly accused for headaches after drinking red wine when it's actually the tannin or alcohol that's making it happen. You can read why this is true and what I have to say about the misinformation in my very angry blog post titled "Sulfites In Wine: The Truth You May Not Like".

Oak chips, sawdust and oak essence are cheap and quick ways to make wine taste oaked without paying for the barrels and spending all that time in them. Yes, you yourself can buy a bottle of wood flavored liquid called oak essence for beer brewing and winemaking at supply stores and websites. I must admit that anything containing the word essence reminds me of Smurf essence. Go get 'em, Gargamel! Sometimes through tasting it's easy to spot the wines that use these oak adjuncts, especially the chips, but sometimes it's not and you'll never know.

Powdered Tannin can be added to the same shopping cart as oak essence. It's made from these little cist-looking growths on oak trees called nutgall. If a wine comes out soft and lacking in structure, you can kick up the tannin and astringency by adding some powdered tannin!

I've already covered Tartaric Acid in my article "The Chemistry between us... and wine" and here's what I said about it:
Tartaric Acid is the most important acid in both grapes and wine. Here it dominates in quantity and has the strongest pH, but despite its abundance in grapes it's actually the rarest acid found in all other plants. Tartaric acid is to blame for those tartrate crystals that you see forming on a cork or at the bottom of a bottle. Those are caused by potassium acid salt from the tartaric acid and it's irreversible. They're harmless so you shouldn't be afraid of them, although the wine will have less acidity than originally intended. Read the full article...
So when a wine comes out less acidic than intended or desired, tartaric acid is added.

Dimethyl dicarbonate is a smelly and colorless liquid that is mostly used as a preservative and sterilizer in juice and wine when they can't be pasteurized or sulfered. It does a bang up job of killing bacteria, fungus and destructive yeasts. There's even a brand of dimethyl dicarbonate named Velcorin that was founded in the 1980's. It focuses the majority of its business on wine, but also extends itself into juices.

Water. Yes, water. The addition of water is one way to cut down on alcohol. I'll go over another way of doing so in Part Two.

Ever seen a wine labeled as vegan and wonder "how the hell is fermented grape juice not vegan?" Well, that means that they don't use any of the following products. Egg whites and fish bladders attract floaties so they're used to fine and clarify wine. Gelatin, used in gummy bears and a by-product of the meat and leather industry, is used for clarification too. Milk can be used to clarify and remove unwanted flavors.  Trypsin, from pig or cow pancreas, and pepsin, from pig or cow stomach, reduce or remove proteins that can otherwise only be destroyed at high temperatures.

This next one is particularly gross but it's not added on purpose and isn't much of a problem outside of those dirt cheap bargain wines. You see, the biggest downside to massive high production ultra inexpensive wines is that they're so mechanically reliant, from harvesting to crushing to fermenting, that they barely monitor things that are pulled off the vine and being crushed with the grapes. The good news is that you won't be getting any notes of those bird droppings, arachnids and rodent corpses on the final flavor. Bronco Wine Company, the producer of Charles Shaw and Crane Lake, have been accused of this for years. They deny it but it happens. Hell, it's all sterilized from fermentation anyways so drink up!

- Joey Casco, CSW

Part 2: Mega Purple & Enologix covers the grape concentrates Mega Purple and Ultra Red, modern equipment used to manipulate wine, and wines formulated to get a high rating score.

Thank you to my good friend Angela Busco for suggesting this topic and helping out with the research material!

Part 1: Mass Appeal & Cover-ups
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  1. Great read! Love it and yes, Diammonium Phosphate better known as DAP is a yeast nutrient. And as for the "animal remains/byproducts" tough to not have them anywhere, there are micro standards that allow a certain amount of all that nasty stuff in food products. One of the many pleasures that I know about from being a microbiologist. Tough on the appetite.

  2. I like wine a lot but am hardly an expert. I don't know much at all other than what I like and more rarely do not like.

    This article is EPIC and almost makes me feel like an expert after reading it.

    I will say that the best wine I've ever had was from the Plymouth Bay Winery that I believe is near you ( it really is a funny story about my tasting experience there where we bought several bottles and some jams I hope to tell you about some time ). That may even influence my opinion of the wine itself but we thoroughly enjoyed the wine many times after and again it could have been partially because of the amazing experience but either way I will remain a fan of Plymouth Bat Winery for life.

    Also your blog is Awesome! Thanks for taking the time toshareinfo you are so clearly passionate about. Have a Great Day!

    1. Wow, Benjamin! Thank you for that! You have completely made my month!

      I have never been to Plymouth Bay Winery but I'll make it a point to get my ass down there! Thank you for sharing your tasting experience and for the awesome comments! :)

  3. This is so in-depth and I learned a lot. I live by drinking what you like and sometimes thats a cheap wine that isn't really wine (its alcoholic juice), I admit it and sometimes its a wine worthy of being a wine, but this helped me understand some of why I like some of the things I like. I look forward to reading more posts!

  4. Joey: Great read, thank you so much! I stumbled upon this while sitting with my first ever bottle of Meiomi Pinot Noir and wondering how much of the available 25% of blended varietals was included, and what they are. You mentioned Petit Sirah, Chardonnay, and Riesling are included? Where did you find this information and do you know the true cepage? Is it consistent with vintage? Very curious... Thanks for any additional info you may have. I can be reached at -- Cheers! Michael Woods, CS, Washington DC

  5. Fantastic article, I have seen the poor results of the use of mega purple in the industry to "upflavor" wines. One of the most shocking came from a person I knew in the wine industry who worked at Prisoner. She witnessed the actual use of Mega Purple being dumped in the making of the wine. Thus the serious difference of 2014 vs. 2015 vintage and the fact mega purple is owned by Constellation who by the way owns Prisoner Wine.

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