Ridge Vineyards (Ridge Vineyards)

Ridge Vineyards, one of California’s premier wineries, recently announced that beginning with the 2011 vintage, its labels will list ingredients and “actions” taken in producing the wines. This move by such a high-profile winery could encourage others to list ingredients and heighten consumer awareness of the use of additives and modern techniques in winemaking.

As I wrote here a year ago, wineries are not required to list ingredients on wine labels. A few, such as California’s Bonny Doon and Long Island’s Shinn Estate, have done so, but they have not ignited a trend. Ridge might have more influence, as its single-vineyard zinfandel blends and its Monte Bello cabernet sauvignon have legions of devoted followers.

What’s the big deal? Isn’t wine just fermented grape juice?

Well, no, it isn’t. The federal government has approved the use of more than 60 additives in winemaking to serve a variety of purposes, including promoting fermentation (yes, yeast is on the list), correcting an acid imbalance, tweaking the wine’s color or guarding against various chemical faults and spoilage. All of the additives have been determined to be safe; most are quite natural and, like powdered tannins and some color extracts, are even derived from grapes.

The use of additives has become controversial among advocates of “natural” or minimalist winemaking. Fine wine, they argue, doesn’t need the hocus-pocus of modern chemistry and technology. If you grow high-quality grapes in the vineyard, you won’t have to correct so many flaws in the winery. Ridge and its chief winemaker, Paul Draper, are firmly in that camp.

“We believe that for anyone attempting to make fine wine, modern additives and invasive processing limit true quality and do not allow the distinctive character of a fine vineyard to determine the character of the wine,” the winery says on its Web site. It singled out two controversial and widely used additives: Mega Purple, the brand name of a grape concentrate used to add color and texture to red wines, and Velcorin, a brand name for dimethyl dicarbonate, a rather nasty chemical widely used in the beverage industry to guard against spoilage. (Though it requires special handling, Velcorin is water-soluble and breaks down harmlessly once added to juice or wine.) In winemaking, Velcorin is chiefly used to eliminate Brettanomyces, a type of yeast regarded by many winemakers as ruinous to wine’s character. (More on “Brett” next week.) 

In a separate statement on the Ridge Web site, Draper inveighed against “invasive” processing of wine to correct various faults. “Processing machines have been developed to increase alcohol, to lower alcohol, to eliminate vinegar, brett, cork taint, smoke taint from forest fires, and even sugar from wines intended to be dry,” he wrote. “They all work on the principle of forcing the wine through a membrane under very high pressure. The correction of deficiencies or excesses in wine has moved inexorably from gentle, non-invasive methods to additives and invasive mechanical processing.”

The label for Ridge’s 2011 Geyserville, the winery’s flagship zinfandel-based red blend, lists “hand-harvested, sustainably grown grapes; indigenous yeasts; naturally occurring malolactic bacteria; calcium carbonate [to reduce acidity during fermentation]; minimum effective [sulfur dioxide].” The winery statement said Ridge sometimes uses other additives, including water, egg whites (for clarifying the wine in barrel) and tartaric acid, “non-invasive additives in use for the last two hundred years.”

Draper said he opposes any regulation requiring ingredient labeling, which would be expensive for smaller wineries in laboratory costs and the need for new label approvals by the government. But the decision to list ingredients on Ridge labels is a shot across the bow to an industry that applies words such as “handcrafted” and “artisanal” to even the most run-of-the-mill mass-produced wines.

“We refer to Ridge winemaking as pre-industrial,” Draper wrote, “and hope to encourage other fine-wine producers to voluntarily entrust their customers with a list of their ingredients.”

McIntyre blogs at dmwineline.com. Follow him on Twitter: @dmwine.