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Wines by the Vat
By Tina Caputo
Dec 22, 2009
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This may come as a shock to you, so brace yourself: Much of the wine sold in supermarkets is not, in fact, handcrafted by artisan winemakers in small batches and transported to market on the wings of tiny angels.  In fact, lots of it is mass-produced in giant winemaking facilities that generate millions of bottles each year.

This revelation was presented in early December on National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered” program.  The show’s on-air guest was Keith Wallace, founder of the Wine School of Philadelphia, whose recent column on The Daily Beast website compared most of the world’s wine production to the churning out of Big Macs by Mickey D’s.  

In order to supply all the wine-selling outlets in the U.S., Wallace said, “You have to produce (wine) at an industrial level, which means silos of wine, massive tons of grapes going into these basic factories.  And they slap labels on them that imply that they’re coming from a real winery, and they’re not….  This is (true for) about 80 to 90% of all wine sold in the United States.”

NPR host Michele Norris pointed out another potentially deceptive practice: “The picture of the vineyard is often on the label.  They don’t show a factory, they show rows and rows of grapes on the vine.”

And as wine-industry insiders all know, the grapes for those wines never see soil -- they’re actually created in a laboratory.  And of course, we also know that the wines are not made with larger-scale versions of the tanks, presses and equipment that “real” wineries use, but on automated factory assembly lines programmed by robots. 

OK, kidding aside (for now), I think it’s time for a reality check.  While there is certainly truth in Wallace’s assertions -- yes, the country’s top-selling wine brands are produced in massive quantities in huge winemaking facilities -- it’s going a bit far to imply that the wine industry is out to deceive the gullible public. 

While large-scale wine production often results in Coca-Cola-like product uniformity, that doesn’t mean that the wines -- or their production methods -- are necessarily bad.  Consistency is actually what a lot of people want; they take comfort in the fact that the bottle of Gallo Chardonnay they’re buying is going to taste just like the last one they opened. 

As for the rest of us, who love the authenticity and variability of small-production wines, there are still hundreds of vintners out there producing them.  In fact, the majority of wineries in the United States are small, independently run operations -- the kind that inspire romantic visions of bucolic vineyards and handcrafted winemaking.  It’s just that the five biggest companies -- with E & J Gallo at the top of the heap -- are producing most of the wine in the U.S. 

Just as “slow food” advocates take the time to inform themselves about food purveyors that share their ideals, passionate wine lovers can seek out and support artisan wine producers.  Most of the time, the information is right there on the wine’s back label. 

As defined by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), the federal agency that regulates wine labels, these are the official terms to look out for:

Produced By or Made By:  The winery made at least 75% of the wine at the label’s stated address.  Legally, up to 25% of the wine may have come from elsewhere.

Blended By:  The wine was blended with other wines of the same class and type at the label’s stated address.  (The wines were likely purchased from another winery in bulk and blended by the buyer.)
 
Cellared, Vinted or Prepared By:  The wine may have been made elsewhere, by another producer, but it was subjected to cellar treatments (such as barrel aging)  at the purchasing winery’s location.

If you really want to be sure the wine you’re buying isn’t made from bulk juice produced at some other location, look for an “Estate Grown & Bottled” designation on the label.  It means:

  • The bottling winery must be located in the labeled AVA.
  • The winery must grow 100% of the grapes on land owned or controlled by the bottling winery within the boundaries of the labeled AVA.
  • The winery must produce and bottle all the wine in a continuous process, with the wine never leaving the premises.

Of course, that’s no guarantee that you’re going to enjoy the wine in the bottle, but at least you’ll know where it came from and who made it. 

You’ll find additional clues about production size and winemaking practices on winery websites.  While producers won’t always declare, “We produce a total of 50,000 cases per year,” they often post “tech sheets” (check the “Trade” section of the website) that include case-production figures for each individual wine.  Just do the math.  Also, look for winemaker bios that give details about hands-on involvement by a “real person” -- not marketing fluff about a fictitious brand icon. 

Authenticity in the wine industry is alive and well -- if you know where to look.