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The high effort behind low-intervention wine, the need for better protection of worker rights, smoke taint in California, and an argument for clearer labeling

Low-intervention winemaking: “It takes a lot of work to do very little.”

In her article for Wine Searcher, Vicki Denig explores the persistent trend of the “hands-off approach” in the wine industry. This low-intervention method “has become a favored style of winemaking for vignerons across the globe.” Whilst such an approach may look slightly different across vineyards, its underlying principles are: “farm organically, manipulate the juice as little as possible, and add nothing, with the exception of minimal sulfur.” Denig provides the example of winemaker Joe Swick in Oregon who “[lets] vinification processes happen naturally and only [intervenes] via top-offs and/or sulfur additions.”

Low-intervention winemaking is favoured for its eco-friendly processes, respecting the terroir, and better tasting “honest” wines. Denig quotes winemaker Bernard Bohn in Alsace who says, “If you feel obliged to work in a commercial way, its oppression and lack of character will be felt through the glass.”

It would appear logical that a low-intervention approach to winemaking would by default require less work. However, as Denig highlights, this is not the case.  By not using additives or high quantities of sulfur the risks are higher, requiring “maximum attention in the cellar.” She quotes Bohn who shares how “[hands off] sounds easy, but on the contrary, you need a lot of rigor and precision.” This is further emphasized by Tomoko Kuriyama of Chantereves in Savigny-les-Beaune, who notes how “the numerous variables, factors, and unknowns that go into hands-off winemaking actually makes it more prone to accidents”

Kuriyama also highlights how organic farming necessitates more intervention than processes reliant on chemical pesticides. For example, since organic treatments can be “weak, as well as washed away by rain,” they require more frequent application. Organic farming also involves “more detailed pruning,” as “intensive canopy management [is necessary] to let air in if your vineyard is organic.” 

Clearly, as Chris Brockway of Broc Cellars in California sums up, “it takes a lot of work to do very little.”

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The need for wine certification to protect worker rights

Writing for Grape Collective, Monty Waldin calls for wine certifications to set standards to protect worker rights. He begins with a discussion on the development of organic and biodynamic wine third party certifications in the last few decades, noting how the natural wine movement has been less reluctant to adopt standards. 

Referring to France’s recently established ‘Vin Méthode Nature’ certification as a “good first step” Waldin notes how “it doesn’t go far enough to protect the values of the natural wine movement.” Although it is the first formal recognition of natural wines, Waldin states that “the next task must be a social contract between winery owners and their staff and communities for fair working conditions.” 

This is especially important given the prevalence of “temporary, short-term contracts which favour employers rather than the employed.” Waldin refers to the recent arrest of businessman Settimio Passalacqua in Puglia accused of exploiting migrant agricultural workers. The arrest placed Valentina Passalacqua, Settimio’s daughter, under heavy scrutiny. As the owner of an organic, biodynamic, and natural vineyard in Puglia, Valentina’s winery and its working conditions have been under close inspection. 

He hopes that the arrest will push the wine industry to re-examine its practices and that worker exploitation will not remain as “the dirty secret that [the wine] industry is turning a blind eye to.” He stresses how the industry must demand for certification boards to include stricter guidelines in their rules to ensure and protect vineyard worker rights. After all, as Waldin notes, “the cast-iron truth [is] that there is no terroir expression in wine without the human hand.”

Smoke taint in California

Writing for The San Francisco Chronicle, Esther Mobley reports on how the ongoing Lake Napa Unit (LNU) Lightning Complex wildfires in California have affected winemakers in the area. Spanning across Napa, Sonoma, Lake, Solano, and Yolo counties, the wildfires began on August 17-18 and have spread to become California’s second largest wildfire in history.

Mobley shares how many wineries in the area may end up not making any wine this year due to the damage the wildfire smoke has caused in the vineyards. “Prolonged, heavy smoke exposure” causes a highly damaging effect called ‘smoke taint,’ in which grapes are tainted “with unpleasantly smoky aromas and flavors.” According to the article, smoke taint is difficult to identify and “many laboratories test for only a few of the compounds that can contribute to it.” Furthermore, it can take some time for the effects of smoke taint to surface, resulting in wine that initially tastes fine but later reveals to be tainted.

Among affected winemakers is Noah Dorrance, owner of Reeve Wines in Sonoma County. Having sampled many grapes, Dorrance shares how the smoke taint is highly noticeable, noting how “you could already taste and smell this ashy, barbecued flavor, kind of like a campfire.” As a winemaker without his own vineyard or winemaking facilities, Dorrance cannot risk “taking a chance on potentially smoke-tainted wines.” Smaller wineries such as Reeve Wines have “less financial wiggle room” and unfortunately, ending up with an undrinkable wine would “put [them] out of business.”

Wildfires and issues of smoke taint are by no means new to the region. However, as Mobley highlights, the effects of the LNU Lightning Complex wildfires are unprecedented in that they are widespread. She quotes Dorrance who says, “I had never considered that smoke could affect everything we make.” 

What would be the business impact of “[skipping] the 2020 vintage” for Reeve Wines? According to Dorrance, “it’s potentially a little bit of a blessing.” As a winery heavily dependent on sales in the hospitality sector, a reduction in inventory could help balance out the unsold stock resulting from the  Covid-19 pandemic. 

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Clear labeling: the way to attract more consumers

So argues Jim Gordon in his article for Wine Enthusiast. According to Gordon, wineries need to focus on “the most obvious, simple way to attract engaged consumers: clearer education and transparency through labeling.” An increasing number of consumers demand and value transparency in products, especially among the Millennial and Gen Z audience. Furthermore, a wine’s packaging is an already paid for, customer-facing space that provides an “exclusive communications medium.” Wineries should therefore engage in clearer labeling to “tell consumers what’s really inside the bottle or what the wine tastes like.”

The article provides the example of American winery Ridge Vineyards, which has for several years “declared everything that goes into their wines.” Terms that can be found on their wine labels include: “‘hand-harvested, sustainability grown,’ ‘indigenous yeasts,’ ‘naturally occurring malolactic bacteria,’ and ‘minimum effective SO2.’”However, according to Gordon, transparency should extend beyond ingredient labeling to descriptions of taste, as “consumers want and deserve to know what a wine tastes like, too.” Winemaking processes and techniques could also be shared to further engage and connect with consumers. Overall, Gordon believes “it’s time to stop mystifying consumers with opaque labeling that obscures what’s in the bottle.”

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