Explosive Claims of De-Alcholization of California Wines Debunked

By Stephen Eliot and Charles Olken

Those who would have us believe that California wines are on an increasingly slippery slope were recently given new fuel for their fires with the wholly inaccurate claims by ConeTech of Santa Rosa that 25% of all Chardonnay and Pinot Noir produced in California is treated with an industrial process to lower the alcohol levels of those wines.

It did not take long for reactions to set in with even the venerable Jancis Robinson tweeting without thinking that “¼ of all California Chardonnay undergoes alcohol removal. T’aint natural.” Obviously one incorrect report has produced another from a usually trusted source, and Robinson, of course, is not the only one to repeat the claim without examining it. The inherent falseness of the report and the failure to look at what really goes on has generated an unfortunate tempest that has escaped the teapot and has become fodder for those who, like Robinson, should have looked before leaping and for folks with axes to grind and who will tout this outlandish and incorrect claim as “proof” that furthers the stereotype of California wines being overly processed.

First of all, the numbers do not add up. As Siduri winemaker, Adam Lee, has pointed out, there were, in fact, nearly sixty million cases of California Chardonnay and Pinot Noir produced in California in 2012, and ConeTech officials said that over nine million cases of California wine of all types goes through alcohol reduction. In point of fact, Pinot and Chardonnay are just nine per cent of the total wine production of 662 million gallons in 2012. Thus, it is perfectly clear that ConeTech’s claims of twenty-five percent are a complete and utter exaggeration. They have patted their backs once too often.

Secondly, the discussion of “de-alcoholization” does not even begin to ask what kind of wines are being processed, and in so doing, it has given unwitting ammunition to the Jancis Robinson’s of this world who have uncritically and without a whit of forethought repeated those claims as if there were indicative of the industry across the board. And that is the second big sin here.

Because, given the enormous amount of cheap Chardonnay and Pinot that is packaged in big boxes and jugs of cheap, unrecognizable swill no matter what varietal label is attached , or offered in the typical 750 ml bottle at miniscule prices as low as two bucks and stacked in pallet-sized piles in supermarkets and outlets from Trader Joe’s to Safeway and Target, we have no problem believing that there millions of cases of highly processed wines making their ways to market. The problem, of course, is that consumers armed with false knowledge will warily assume that fully one-quarter of what they see on the shelves of better wine stores and on restaurant wine lists will be “tainted” wines that have been ruined by industrial insensitivity.

Last, but not least, the naysayers should have exercised a little thought and humility before buying into the idea that any wine whose alcohol has been reduced is somehow inherently failed. There are far too many folks whose near-luddite convictions lead them to be more concerned with process than results, and the truth is that there are a great many very fine wines that are made without adhering to strict minimalist standards.

As we have so often said and emphasize once again, the means by which complex, high-quality, deeply satisfying wines are made, save for those which somehow do harm to people and the planet, should be seen as irrelevant when looking for the very best wines that talented winemakers and growers can make. Wine quality is about what is in the glass, not about catechism, ritual, philosophical purity or divine inspiration.

As for the piece of very questionable journalism in The Drinks Business1 which started all this misdirected nonsense in the first place, we side with commenter and long-time wine biz person, Tom Heller, who responds “where do they get this crap?”

1 http://www.thedrinksbusiness.com/2014/12/14-of-calif-chard-undergoes-alc-removal/

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