Wine, most simply put, is fermented
grape juice. So, why do we
pay such varied prices for it? Is it
because of the luring shelf-talker proudly
proclaiming a 90-point rating? Or, because
of the sommelier who waxes poetic about
provenance and production?
Well, these are definitely influencing
factors on how we ultimately allocate our
wine dollars. But, it’s production parameters,
from the vineyard to the winery to
the shelf, in most cases, that justify the
price tags on those bottles that tempt us to
dig deeper into our pockets.
All great wine starts in the vineyard. From a Darwinian standpoint, a grapevine is much like us: It likes to dig deep in a locale, become prolific and reproduce. Deep-rooted vines have access to more minerals and nutrients, which aid in the development of complex flavors. But, that takes time and, as the old adage goes, “Time is money.”
The first three years after a vine is
planted, no suitable grapes for wine production
are yielded. Then, the vine enters
a youthful phase and has a tendency to
overproduce foliage and fruit. A vineyard
that yields 6-8 tons of fruit per acre is great
for the farmer getting paid by the ton, but
not for the consumer. These overachieving
vineyards will likely produce anemic,
weedy, insipid wines.
Vineyard site and vine competition are natural ways of lowering yields. When vineyards are planted on hillsides, in tight rows, on rocky soils or less-fertile land, the vines struggle and yields plummet. A laborious and expensive way of reducing yields is by cutting fruit before it’s fully developed. These lower-yielding, well-kept vineyards produce wines with more structure and intensity.
There are two ways to get fruit from the
vines: by hand, or by machine. Machine
harvesters have no selection skills and
are quite violent. They go between or over
rows while padded arms slam the trunks
of vines and everything that falls goes into
the bin: overripe and underripe. I’ve even
heard of stowaway bugs and critters making
their way to the winery.
By contrast, manual laborers pick
grapes with precision, where they’re
placed into small baskets to avoid bruising
or breaking the grape skins to prevent
off-flavors. Conscientious producers also
have lengthy sorting tables where undesirable
fruit is discarded. Yields continue to
diminish for quality producers as prices
are forced upward.
Most white wine is fermented, allowed
to settle in stainless steel tanks and then
bottled. This saves you money and saves
the winery time. Most red wines are treated
for nine to 18 months in some type of
new or used oak. During this period, the
wine picks up flavors from the oak, and a
small amount of air transfer promotes the
development of complex flavors. Oak is
not cheap, and French oak—the preferred
oak of fine wine producers—can be two
to three times as expensive as American
oak. French oak has a finer grain with a
more subtle influence of spice flavors as
opposed to the high amount of spice and
sometimes overpowering vanilla flavors
imparted by American oak. Then, triple the
price for new versus used oak and you get
To ensure clarity, most wine is filtered— and, too often, over-filtered, reducing flavor and texture. The alternative is costly, and involves repeatedly moving wine from one barrel to another while leaving the sediment behind; try a cup of drip coffee versus French press to get the idea.
You don’t have to spend your rent money
to enjoy great wine. But I hope now you’ll
scoff less at premium wine prices, knowing
the economics and production parameters
behind them. Still, don’t trust me.
The proof is in the bottle.
Louis Koppel, CSW, is sommelier at Spencer’s for Steaks & Chops.