Sat 3 May 2008
Randall Grahm, founder, owner and winemaker of Bonny Doon Vineyard, likes to stay ahead of the curve. He was one of the first winemakers in California to take up seriously the principles of biodynamic farming, in 2003. He now finishes all of his products, not just the inexpensive ones, with screw-caps. He actually sold part of his brands and vineyards in June 2006 so he could focus on the biodynamic Ca’ del Solo vineyard, reducing his production from 425,000 cases to 35,000.
The latest innovation from this dedicated, outspoken and sometimes eccentric producer can be found on the back labels on two recently released white wines from vintage 2007: a list of ingredients. That’s right, beginning with the whites from 2007 and the reds from 2006, all wines from Bonny Doon will indicate the ingredients therein. The wines so marked presently are the Bonny Doon Ca’ del Solo Vineyard Albarino 2007 (about $20) and the Ca’ del Solo Muscat 2007 (about $17), both from Monterey County, and both lovely, artfully-made wines, floral- and mineral-laced, swooning with soft, macerated citrus and stone-fruit flavors. The Muscat offers a touch of sweetness.
The principal ingredient in wine — at the risk of creating a “Big Duh” moment — is grapes. Well, one might think, there it is.
Grahm, however, in the interests of disclosure and consumer awareness and as a move toward “internal discipline,” includes on the ingredients list sulfur dioxide, indigenous yeast and organic yeast hulls, bentonite and cream of tartar (potassium bitartrate).
Now we already now that wine producers use tiny amounts of sulfur dioxide in white wines to prevent oxidation and bacterial growth. The federal government requires on every bottle of wine sold in the United States the words “Contains Sulfites,” because a small (or minuscule) portion of the population is allergic to sulfur. Yeast, well that’s a given, but is yeast actually an ingredient? Isn’t that rather like listing “heat” as an ingredient on loaves of bread? I mean, the point of fermentation is that yeast turns the grape sugars into alcohol (and carbon dioxide) and in the process largely disappears. The amount of alcohol in a wine is also mandated by federal law to be enumerated on labels (of all alcoholic beverages). Any yeast cells left in the wine would be removed by a light filtering.
Even more curious is the inclusion of bentonite, a clay, used to stabilize white and rose wines and remove proteins, and cream of tartar, used to remove tartrate crystals from wine. Racking wines and subtly filtering them remove the bentonite and the cream of tartar and the crystals from the finished wine, so none of these materials are left. So, they’re not ingredients, are they? The word “ingredient” derives from the present participle of the Latin ingredi, “to enter,” but after the bentonite and cream of tartare enter the wine, they, well, you know, they exit.
I don’t mean to make merry at the expense of Bonny Doon and Randall Grahm — well, I do a little — but what the labels on these wines really indicate aren’t ingredients but techniques, and not innovative techniques but long-established traditions in wine-making; historically, winemakers have used all sorts of natural substances, including egg whites and isinglass, to clarify wines. Grahm says in a Bonny Doon press release: “We hope other winemakers will be encouraged to also adopt less interventionist practices and rely less upon an alphabet soup of additives to ‘improve’ their wines.”
Bentonite and cream of tartar, however, aren’t “additives” and they’re not “interventionist”; they are purely natural elements that do their simple work and disappear from or are eliminated from the finished wine. Read the ingredients list on a package of Twinkies; there are some additives, and they’re all right there in the Twinkie. There are plenty of contemporary interventionist methods in winemaking to get hot and bothered about — micro-oxygenation, reverse osmosis, oak powder and so on — but dropping a handful of cream of tartar into a tank of white wine is not one of them.
No, of course, Grahm knows that bentonite is not an additive and what he’s really after is for winemakers to join in employing the most basic and natural methods in winemaking, but I think on these issues consumers need either a bit more or even a tad less information.
On the other hand — and there’s always an other hand — Grahm, while typically a fanatic (if not a fun-loving fantasist), is working today at an extraordinarily high level of purity and intensity in his wines. I am and will remain a complete skeptic about the efficacy or the necessity of the extreme forms of biodynamic farming methods, but I’ll put those caveats out of my mind while sipping Bonny Doon’s Albarino 2007, a supremely seductive (yet spare and slightly austere) wine that I rate Excellent and my favorite of this pair.
The strange objects on these labels, which look like condoms wearing little fur coats, depict the “sensitive crysallization” of the individual wines. The press materials don’t reveal how these “sensitive crystallizations” occur, but when Grahm writes, of the Muscat 2007, “well-defined vacuoles reflect the powerful aromatic potential” and “finely textured crystals reach out to the end of the periphery reflecting the vine’s connection to the soil,” I cannot help thinking that “sensitive crystallization” is a synonym for “smoke and mirrors.”