Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Spinning Oak Chips

"Get the information out yourself, on your own terms, so you can set the terms of debate." The dictum that was page one of the Clinton White House's media playbook has now been appropriated by the wine industry with regards to the use of oak chips. As Eric Asimov reports in his latest dispatch, the trade magazine Wine & Vines devoted an entire issue last month to "oak alternatives" in the hopes that the industry can get out in front of the issue. The desired end, of course, is having the general public accept the much reviled practice of imparting traditional oak flavors in a wine through the use of oak chips, wooden blocks, powder, or barrel staves rather than the significantly more expensive process of traditional barrel aging.

Oak chips have long been used to flavor cheap wines, and the results are usually quite vile: wines with caricatured oak flavors without any of the nuance -- let alone the structure, texture, or body -- of wines carefully aged in new oak barrels.

But Wine & Vines editor Jim Gordon, in spin worthy of James Carville, argues: “People are going to find out sooner or later about all of this, so wouldn’t the American wine industry be smart to shape the story itself, rather than let some political opponent or competing region do so? The industry is probably much more frightened of the subject than consumers will be. Oak is as natural as it comes. Whether it surrounds and contains the wine or is immersed in it, it’s still just a natural flavoring from a tree that symbolizes strength and longevity."

It is all too easy to take part apart Gordon's statement ("symbolizes"? powdered tannins as "natural" as traditional oak barrels?) and, instead, I would like to turn to a more helpful framing of the issue from David Schildknecht of The Wine Advocate. Schildknecht, writing in a thread on the Squires Board, states that as with any manipulative technique in winemaking, there are "issues of taste and issues of authenticity, both matters of degree, and both with an irreducible component of human preference and volition."

Schildknecht surveys many of the oak alternatives currently available and finds some techniques to be much more successful than others in the context of low-cost alternatives for wines "never designed or priced to go through a traditional, expensive barrel-élevage." Yet Schildknecht concludes that even if he may find the taste of a particular wine enhanced by the use of oak blocks, he may, just the same, avoid that wine for its lack of authenticity: "I might, in short, think that its use represents cheating in the game with nature that is called 'making wine.'" Of course, as Schildknecht observes, the argument then turns to how to define "cheating" and how indeed to distinguish barrel aging from oak chips. This is precisely the line that Jim Gordon and the industry seek to blur with their talk of all forms of oak being "a natural flavoring."

Schildknecht, like Gordon, comes out in favor of greater openness about the issue, but for very different reasons. Schildknecht argues: "The irony is that as long as winemaking techniques and technology are viewed by a significant segment of the wine-drinking public ... as transcending or offending against some vague notion of 'tradition' - in short as taboo - the less information oenologists and winery owners are inclined to divulge about their practices and hence the more likely that you are buying and enjoying wine whose production involved methods you may be claiming are a tool of the devil!"

I am generally sympathetic toward Schildknecht's free market argument: have all the information available to the consumer and let the market decide. But I also agree with the decision of INAO (the French regulatory agency overseeing wine production) to ban the use of oak chips in all appellation contrôlée wines in the face of the EU's recent directive allowing their limited use. I firmly believe it is the place of a regulatory body with the historic mandate of INAO to hold the line with regards to the best French wines (if only INAO were as vigilant in limiting yields). Yet in the absence of such a regulatory scheme in the United States, the onus will rest upon the consumer to be informed and inquisitive and demand that the use of these techniques be fully disclosed.

And I am hopeful. As one contributor to the Squires Board thread put it: "... there's cheese and then there's 'cheese product,' process cheese like Kraft Singles. Maybe it's time for wine labels to reflect the same distinctions."

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