OKAY. I admit it. For years back in Los Angeles, I mostly sipped sh*t wine. Thinking it was good wine. And good for me. At $5-12 per bottle, inexpensive wine fit my wallet but still made me feel like I was “healthy.” A glass or two of red wine a day is supposed to be good for you, right?
Wrong. Not all wine is created equal. And labels can be of little help. So what works? For we non-sommelier wine-drinkers out there? My Jelly Jar Test.
When I moved north to Sonoma in 2007, jumping from NASA to learn winemaking as “Cellar Rat” for a Winemaster, I learned how toxic and fattening my cheap wines were. If you’re drinking wine that is $15 or less per bottle like I was — especially a red — I don’t care how delicious it “tastes,” I’ll wager you are drinking a synthetic concoction of chemical aromas, sugars, food dye, (maybe) some grape concentrate all wrapped up in arsenic and ammonia based sludge before being doused with high levels of sulfites to protect said concoction during it’s unknown lifespan after leaving the winery.
For if you think about every bottle of wine in every household, restaurant, bar, and store in every city in every State of this great Nation, you can see that wine has largely become a “fast food” commodity. For Cheap wine is designed to be “cheap.” From Day One. Before those grapes are picked by combine and extended with additives in tanks stories tall. Now, giant labels, engorged Wineries, and big-box teams are not staffed by bad people. Far from it. Just working for very large corporations more mindful of the bottom line. Selling you something tasty, cheap, seems like a win-win for most people. But if you want to know what’s in your glass? Try my test at home.
Directions: Open a bottle. Pour yourself a glass and then another into a Jelly Jar or juice glass. A Mason Jar is my choice. Nothing fancy, you want to encourage wine contact with as much surface air as possible. Cover the Jar with a paper napkin or paper towel — something so the liquid breathes. Go enjoy your night. And come back tomorrow –12 or 24 hours later. Or more. AND TASTE IT.
What do you taste? What do you see? or Smell? Does it taste like the lushness of grapes (or some % thereof) you enjoyed last night? If so, then you’ve been enjoying Real Wine or a somewhat decently Vitis Vinifera based beverage. For wines made from actual grapes? Taste like the vineyards from which they are sourced. Grapes taste like Grapes. From vine to tank, from barrel to bottle, in your Glass, cool from the wine fridge or warmed to ambient temperatures — it doesn’t matter. Wines grown conscientiously, made by hand, in volumes meant for regional consumption, minimal destinations like bistros and wine bars or direct to consumer (via Wine Clubs) will likely pass the Jelly Jar Test.
But what if you taste something bitter? Smell nothing like the drink you enjoyed last night? What if you see the food coloring begin to separate below a meniscus? “LIke the bottle has been open too long?” What you’ve discovered at this chronological point is Acid. Red or white tinted acid remains from the “wine’s” prolonged exposure to oxygen. Barring any winemaking malfunctions, bad timing on barrel lifespans, corkage (TCA contamination), residual dish soap (or toothpaste), or heat/cold spoilage… What we’ve got there in your jar is a multi-billion dollar industry product sold as “Healthy” to the millions of good people cooking, eating, and sipping sincerely across America. A tasty, inexpensive product fabricated for domestic consumption with “food grade” chemicals simulating mouth feel, “finish,” oak dust to fake barrel aging, etc… Down to using steel drums of sub-clone concentrate of Pinot 667 or Cabernet clone 37 for example. The cheaper the bottle? The more chemicals, food dyes, arsenic and amonia based sludge you’re consuming. Nightly. (Think McDonald’s pink slime burger additives. Seriously. And don’t even get me started on wines like Yellow Tail.) Because just like when fast food meals cool and taste disgusting? The same thing is happening in your stemware. Cheap wine warms /oxygenates to reveal it’s true self.
Let’s Talk Turkey: PRICE
In my experience bottles costing more than $22-25 for a white and $28-30 for a red have higher chances of being cleaner and longer-lasting. Over the years, I’ve done this little test on wines from $5-$100 per bottle. Keeping track of which made my neck itch (oak dust added to fake “oaky” flavors), get that 2am Sinus Headache (synthetic/chemical additives), or just plain feel gross and “fat faced” (added sugars and food dyes.) But I’ve been surprised — a lovely $19 red made by a huge producer and sold in Hawaii or that $75 bottle of famous Chardonnay that gives me a migraine each time, regardless of vintage. My rule of thumb is if you figure a wine — regardless of price — can be found in at least 30 states (or even five) in large amounts in most restaurants? YEP, these wines will likely fail your Jelly Jar Test.
Price is still a decent initial indicator of quality. Simply because Real wine is more expensive because it costs that much to make.
When your wine is grown nicely (like ours) made by hand (like ours), aged in barrels for years (like ours), and at least 80% grapes (let alone our 100% grape based wines), the price tag goes up. Because it costs us that much more to produce real, old-school wines. For example, if Chardonnay costs $3950 to purchase one tonne (equaling two barrels and approx 50 cases of wine) — that bottle of Chardonnay needs to start at $39.50 to recover just creation costs. But you’ll have a tasty, HEALTHY Wine with all of the praised body benefits attributed. A drink that lasts for days, even a week. Will not make you fat, give you headaches, wrinkle early, or junk up your body. In fact, I cook often from leftover bottles opened months with very delicious, non-stale results.
Girl Scouts Honor.
What You Can Do To Drink Well: Join WINE CLUBS. Buy Direct. Pay less for well made wines shipped straight to your door than you would for crap wines sold in bulk to your states’ distributor. I am also more than happy to connect you with solid wine families and small wineries producing wines in very similar, clean ways to us. (With zero kick backs. Just happy to spread the love!) Besides, buying direct? Is also cheaper for you and helps sustain solidly producing wine folk here in Sonoma.
What’s Next: There has been some successful movement against fake wines and their producers recently. For the FDA does not require anything but the Surgeon’s General Warning on wine bottle, not the inclusion of additives, sugars, chemicals, and high levels of arsenic. Misleading the American Public to think all wine is created equal. Several Class Action lawsuits are bubbling up, working to inform the American consumer and force bulk, cheap wine labels to list what ingredients are in their crap wines. The most successful Class Action Lawsuit from TaintedWine.com against big, popular labels such as Sutter Home, “Two Buck Chuck” Charles Shaw, Cupcake, Beringer, and Franzia for unsafe arsenic levels. Or google “arsenic wines” in the WS Journal, NY Times, Washington Post, LA Times, USA Today, BBC, etc. to read more.
Be careful with what your drink, dear readers. As you are careful what you eat. When curious, please use my Jelly Jar Test. Works every time. I promise. And cheers! Proactive, conscientious drinking is a good thing.