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!


Winner, 2007 James Beard Award for Journalism

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.

But back to the second part of your question, Baffled: Wines that look different, but taste the same. Can you have the same wine in different bottles? If you had asked me this last year I would have guessed no—but I would have been wrong. I spoke with one wine importer who refused to be named for this story, for fear of losing his clients. "Eighty percent of what's on the shelf in the Australian section is large corporate producers who bottle for different labels," he told me. "And sometimes the same wine for different labels.

"I talked to one wine maker, he told me, 'I can make you whatever you want. You want a Yellow Tail-style? A Rosemount Grenache-Shiraz style? What do you want? Name the wine, we'll make it for you.'" Since the Australian winemaker in question had all the formulas, and collected and managed the exact grapes that went into said brand-name wines, this was no idle boast.

Once you get into a restaurant wine list, things get even worse. Did you ever see a restaurant with its own wine label, say, "Bistro Dara Merlot"? That might well just be a well-known mass-market wine with a specialty label slapped on the bottle. Until now I had always believed the hype about other high-ticket restaurant-only specialty bottlings, the ones that are trumpeted as being the best of the best, simply made in runs too small for the general public. Several of my wine-industry sources told me that they suspect that some of those specialty bottles actually contain inferior wines that would never fetch such prices in the open market.

Are they right? I talked to half a dozen local pros and couldn't get a straight answer, so Baffled, please know not only are you not crazy, but some of the things you feel foolish for not knowing the answer to are in fact questions the brightest minds in the business can't answer. In the pirate seas of today's less expensive wines, sometimes they do all taste and look the same, or different, willy nilly.

Dear Dara,

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