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Help - my wine's being manipulated

Updated: Jan 8, 2022

Who hasn’t heard the saying, “great wines come from great grapes?” And yet, winemakers have for centuries manipulated the wine making process to unfetter themselves from the dictates of the fruit and shape their wines to characteristics they desire.

The Peterson Family Winery, you should check them out, is fond of using the term “Zero Manipulation” to describe their wines. What began as a T-shirt slogan not only defines the family approach to wine making, but also raises an interesting question for wine lovers.

As they explain it, the concept means allowing the terroir to be the dominant influence in the outcome of the wine making process. Quick to point out that it’s a philosophy, not a religion, the family believes that from vineyard to glass their goal is to ensure that what comes through in the wine is not overly influenced by the winemaker’s actions.

As winemaker Jamie Peterson explained, they avoid starting with a preconceived notion of what the wine should taste like, which can lead to the winemaker taking steps to achieve that taste profile. He says you need to be ok with the fact that every vintage will be slightly different, and that these small production wines will be unique and beautiful in their own way. There are passionate arguments on both sides of this question. Winemakers have been manipulating wine since it was first made. Is using specific yeasts, inducing malolactic conversion, and barrel aging manipulation? And is that to be avoided?

Some might even say that amending soil and drip irrigation are a form of manipulation of the vines to produce a wanted result. Just as dropping fruit and removing leaves might be a form of manipulation.

Certainly we now have the science to ensure specific taste profiles regardless of the fruit, and there is no doubt that technology and industrialization are an integral part of modern winemaking. When you consider that roughly 70% of wine sales in the USA are dominated by about a dozen mega-brands, you can see how the drive for consistency and wines that appeal to both critics and consumers could cast the concept of manipulation in a sinister light.

However, others like Clark Smith, author of “Post Modern Winemaking,” embraces manipulation as the essence of wine making. Clark compares wine making to cooking, and points out that great chefs are praised for their ability to manipulate their ingredients to produce amazing flavors. Rather than something to be spoken about behind closed doors, he believes that if winemakers are open about what they are doing, the stigma around manipulation will vanish.

Maybe, the question shouldn’t be whether manipulation, or how much manipulation, is acceptable? Perhaps as wine lovers, we should focus more on understanding what is being manipulated, and do we like it?

An article in the Gray Report, cited below, describes a survey at a wine conference that sampled wines with additives. Of the 250 participants, 248 preferred one of the wines with an additive. Making wines that taste good to most people isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Is it? For the wine lover, we see it more like a win-win. All you need to do is your homework. Want a consistent tasting Chardonnay year after year. They’re out there and they are very good. Want to take advantage of increasing access directly to small artisan wineries to experience the unique terroir of their vineyards and the unique styles of individual winemakers. There are so many great artisan wines being made with a sense for the characteristics of the place and the time. For some of us, that discovery and variability are a glorious part of the wine experience.

I collected some interesting articles here that present both sides of the discussion. Enjoy.

Naturalness in wine: how much manipulation is acceptable What does manipulation of wine mean to you? Removing the manipulation stigma from winemaking How to make mass-produced wines taste great

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