Asked and Answered

What's the wallaby on the label of that shiraz trying to tell you? What about the syrah label featuring a generic chateau? Dear Dara answers all your peskiest wine questions.

How to avoid it? You can't, really, without learning a lot, unless you stick to good restaurants and good wine stores, which should weed out a lot of that for you. (A good wine store is one where the employees have tasted many, or, ideally, all of the wines on hand, and can answer a question like, "What's the difference between Napa Valley and Napa Ridge?")

Second, there is the obvious change in vintage, which is what people mean by "good vintage" or "bad vintage." However, there's also a maxim that runs, "There are no bad vintages, just bad winemakers." There are all kinds of things a winemaker can do to adjust the quality of wine in a bad year. They can hand-pick grapes so they select clusters that are more evenly ripe, they can sell off the bad grapes to bulk producers, they can adjust the blend, and more. If you have to choose between a good vintage with a poor winemaker or a good winemaker with a poor vintage, the smart money is on the good winemaker.

Third, there is the less obvious change of ownership that a vineyard or brand may undergo. For instance, a lot of people have used Bonny Doon's Big House Red, Big House White, and Cardinal Zin as default restaurant picks for a few years now, but this summer the brands were sold to the Wine Group, which makes, no kidding, Franzia and Mogen David. (Yes, the one the kids call Mad Dog.) Will the Wine Group change the wine? They'd probably say no, I'd probably say yes, if only by expanding production, which by default means they'll have to pull in new grapes, which means new flavors.

Over the years, various cheap reliables, like Concha y Toro and assorted Ravenswood wines, have changed in the same way, just by getting bigger. Wine isn't like Pepsi, you can't just get more syrup and water and hire more trucks. Change one thing and it all changes. I used to wonder about the 15 percent oak, 2 percent Cabernet Franc thing myself, until a winemaker explained it to me thusly: Would you know the difference between coffee and coffee that had a teaspoon of tomato juice added to it, or coffee that was brewed in a peppermill? It probably wouldn't be off enough for you to say, "That's not coffee!" But it would be off enough for you to say, "What the heck is wrong with this coffee?"

Fourth and least obvious, the mix of wine grapes in any particular bottle can change dramatically without needing any change to the label. For instance, let's say you have a Dara's Ridge California 2005 Pinot Noir. What do you suppose is in there? Pinot Noir grapes grown in the year 2005? Not entirely. A California wine only needs to be made of 75 percent of the grapes in question to be labeled as a single varietal, so it could be only 75 percent Pinot Noir with, say, 25 percent Merlot, Syrah, Grenache, or whatever they have lying around.

Furthermore, this year the U.S. Treasury Department changed vintage rules so that only 85 percent of the grapes in a bottle need be from the year in question to bear a vintage. (This doesn't hold for bottles from "approved viticulture areas," or AVAs, like Sonoma Valley, but it does hold for more vaguely sourced wine, which is most of it.) The Treasury Department did this to level the playing field for Americans with Australia, which has always had loosey-goosey vintage labeling.

So that 2005 Dara's Ridge Pinot Noir could contain 15 percent 2002 Syrah, and 10 percent 2005 Merlot. Now let's make matters worse: One of those bottles gets mailed to Wine Spectator, and they give it a "best buy" award and 90 points; the winemaker then prints up little "shelf-talker" placards for your liquor store to stick on the wine's shelf to catch your eye. Even after all this, they can make the next batch with 25 percent 2005 merlot, the batch after that with Pinot Noir grapes bought 200 miles down the coast and, oh, say 15 percent 2003 Zinfandel. And it will keep popping up over that little shelf-talker and you will buy it every two months until you think you're losing your mind, and clamp your teeth while muttering, It always looks the same, but it always tastes different!

Ironically, trends and the fickle taste of the consumer make this situation even worse. If you plant new vines, it takes about five years for them to make a good amount of fruit. So, if everyone was planting new Merlot vines five years ago (and they were), the new abundance of Merlot grapes might hit the market at just the time that everyone who saw Sideways suddenly decides they despise Merlot and want nothing but Pinot Noir. A winery capable of making 10,000 cases of Pinot Noir and 10,000 cases of Merlot might suddenly become capable of making 12,500 cases of Pinot and 7,500 cases of Merlot. Guess where the missing Merlot went?

Now, many wine-heads will read this and say, As it should be! Merlot is a blending grape, and if it gets pushed into the Pinot Noir and drunk by ignorant Americans who think some kind of prestige attends to drinking single-varietal wine, hooray! Well, I have to agree. I will never forget the time I was at a wine bar with a food professional who insisted to our server that she didn't like "blends," as she called them, only single-varietal wines. If she only knew, she'd have known her single-varietal wine was a blend.

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