Baseball fans commonly refer to the period of time when numerous high-profile players took performance-enhancing drugs as the “Steroid Era.” In wine, it can be mused that we are now living in the “Additive Era,” in which it is not unusual for wines to be highly manipulated.
Wine color too light? Add some Mega Purple. Looking for more oak influence or additional tannin? Some oak extract could do the trick. Technology exists that can alter just about any aspect of a wine. The natural end point is making synthetic wine without grapes, which people are doing.
One might expect manipulation in entry-level wines, which are aiming more for Coca Cola-like consistency than embracing vintage variation. But top-tier wines sometimes use additives, too. It’s one of the reasons some winemakers blanch at putting ingredient lists on wine labels (not that such lists have stopped us from eating, say, Doritos).
If you can add something to make a wine smell or taste better, why wouldn’t you?
So why do wineries use additives? For the same reason baseball players use performance enhancers: to compete. Wine is big business—the higher the competition, the greater the stakes. More accolades and better scores lead to higher prices and larger profits. If you can add something to make a wine smell or taste better, why wouldn’t you?
While some wineries use every tool available to improve their wines, others work diligently to maintain integrity in production and keep making wine the old-fashioned way, technology be damned. But as one winemaker told me, much like in baseball, it’s difficult to compete when the playing field isn’t level.
It all begs the question: Does integrity really matter in wine?
For many, embracing vintage, variety and appellation is at the very heart of enjoyment. We know there will never be another bottle quite like the one, time-capsuled wine we are drinking. Interfering with that is anathema.
Meanwhile, others are looking for the same wine they have always enjoyed, regardless of what year it comes from.
Neither is wrong, but, to me, wine gets a lot less interesting when it comes from a test tube. It might taste the same. Heck, it might even taste better. But is that really all it’s about? Isn’t wine’s agricultural nature, with its subsequent undulations, part of what makes it so compelling?
Ironically, just as technology has allowed alteration with additives, it has also resulted in easy chemical analysis, where a wine can be laid bare. Much like with doping in baseball, some high profile winery’s reputation will inevitably suffer when someone puts their wine under a microscope. Perhaps this will lead some to step back from the edge or at least push for greater transparency.
Until then, it’s impossible to know just how manipulated a wine is or isn’t.