I DON’T THINK I’m being too hyperbolic when I say that the wine labels for California’s Ridge Vineyards are iconic. Little about them has changed since the winery’s first official vintage in 1962. The Ridge wordmark is still spelled out in stark green and white Optima capitals. There’s still a short note on the vintage from winemaker John Olney. And there’s still an ingredients list: Hand-harvested, sustainably grown grapes; indigenous yeasts; naturally occurring malolactic bacteria; oak from barrel aging; and minimum effective SO₂.
The ingredients themselves aren’t surprising, but the list itself is. It’s a rarity.
To understand why requires a bit of a history lesson. In 1935, two years after the end of Prohibition, Congress established the Federal Alcohol Administration as a division of the Department of the Treasury. While the Treasury might seem like an odd place to manage our nation’s alcohol laws, one must go back to 1791, when the newly formed government decided to pass the nation’s first ever tax, which just so happened to tax distilled spirits. The current regulating agency—the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, created in 2003—is still under the auspices of the Treasury, not that of the Food and Drug Administration, and as such was exempt from the 1990 law that required all food packaging to carry nutrition information. Currently, federal law only requires that wine labels carry a warning for sulfites, the neutral compound that keeps wine from spoiling in the bottle, and the approximate alcohol level of the wine.
This begs the question: What is in wine? But the better question might be what isn’t in wine. The TTB has authorized over 60 kinds of chemical additives for use in winemaking. The most common is Mega Purple, a super-potent grape concentrate that adds color and texture when added to bulk wine blends. If you’ve ever had a glass of inexpensive red wine (or even a few expensive wines), chances are you were taking a big ole swig of Mega Purple. Are you someone who always gets headaches from red wines? It’s likely a reaction to a chemical that was used at some point in the production process, either in the vineyard or at the winery.
To be clear, additives such as Mega Purple have been deemed safe by the government, so there’s no danger in continuing to knock back the bulk wine. But in an era when we’re wanting to know more about what we eat, more transparency regarding how our vegetables were grown and whether our fish was farmed or caught, shouldn’t we also be curious about what’s in our glass? And even then, how exactly are we supposed to know what’s been added to our wine?
Unfortunately, there are no easy answers to this. The best advice I can give is to ask questions. Next time you’re in your local wine shop or liquor store, ask someone who works there which wines are additive-free. It’s literally our job to know these things! I also recommend doing a quick internet search. The wineries committed to farming organically and producing clean, chemical-free wines are eager to promote it and will often have that noted prominently on their websites or social media profiles. (It’s worth noting that the wines listed in this column each month are, at the very least, farmed sustainably.)
Back at Ridge Vineyards, they call their style of winemaking “pre-industrial,” with a commitment to sustainable agriculture. Instead of using synthetic fertilizers and pesticide sprays, cover crops are planted between the vine rows, and composted grape skins from previous harvests are used to replenish the soil and keep the vineyards healthy. In the winery, the fermentation is started using only the yeasts that naturally occur on the grape skins and stems—no additional acids or chemicals are added. In essence, it’s making wine in much the same way as the first Italian immigrants to California did in the 1800s.
Farther north, in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, King Estate Winery, the largest certified biodynamic winery in the U.S., has taken sustainability to new heights. Biodynamic farming, a farming philosophy founded in pre-World War II Europe, considers a farm or vineyard to be a single living thing made of many smaller, interdependent parts. The process focuses not only on the health of the fields but on the health of the forests and waterways, and even the people surrounding them.
The requirements for biodynamic certification hold that any fertilizers used must come from the site itself, either from compost or kept animals, and the standards are so strict that winemakers are in near constant communication with certification bodies to make sure they don’t run afoul of the rules. Even the egg whites dropped into red wine to soften tannins and remove sediment in a process called “fining” must come from chickens that are certified organic.
While biodynamic farming represents an ideal relationship with nature, it’s not without its drawbacks. The costs to implement biodynamic practices are extremely high, making it out of reach for some smaller producers. Wineries that choose to farm biodynamically are also at a greater risk from Mother Nature. In the years when the weather isn’t ideal, many of the tricks that a conventional winemaker might use to mask a flaw in the wine are unavailable to biodynamic winemakers.
Are wines that are organically farmed or made biodynamically better than those that aren’t? With taste in wine being so subjective, it’s an impossible question. For my part, I can confirm that wines free from chemical manipulation have a fresher, more lively profile in the glass. Want to see for yourself? The next time you think you’re reaching for a Mega Purple red, do a quick search or ask for some help. Chances are, you’ll be pointed to one of these incredible wines.
2016 King Estate Willamette Valley Pinot Gris, $18
Put down those mass-produced pinot grigios and learn what this grape can really do. Sourced primarily from the estate’s biodynamic vineyards, this wine’s palate is awash in fresh orchard fruits, waves of green apple, Bosc pear and lemon cream. With that mouthwatering acidity that makes for a pool-perfect wine, Oregon pinot gris is the ultimate summertime staple.
2016 King Estate Willamette Valley Pinot Noir, $26
It’s an old wine buyer’s rule of thumb that pinot noir is the one grape that’s always worth the splurge, but just $26 will get you a biodynamically farmed, additive-free wine that’s full of the telltale aromas of pinot: ripe cherries and fresh, wet earth. The minimum eight months the wine spent aging in French oak adds notes of vanilla, cardamom and caraway seeds to the finish.
2014 Ridge Vineyards Lytton Springs Zinfandel, $45
Zinfandel can often get a bad rap, but in the hands of these expert winemakers, it regains its swagger as a powerhouse grape—one with a rich, sultry palate. Notes of raspberry jam, freshly cracked black pepper and dried savory herbs make it the wine you want to reach for when it comes time to fire up the grill.
2015 Ridge Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, $70
I’m not usually one for grand declarations … but the 2015 vintage of Ridge’s Estate Cabernet is the best 2015 Cabernet I’ve had from California. It easily bests the other wines in its price range and somehow manages to balance immense weight and power with a deftness and purity of fruit that is mind-boggling. With such finesse and structure in its youth, I can only imagine how the wine will change in the decade to come. If you’ve never bought a bottle of wine to age, start with this one.