A few days ago, the Huffington Post ran an article entitled So That’s Why Trader Joe’s Wine Is So Cheap! that went viral. By yesterday, everyone I know had either seen this piece by Chris Knox on their Facebook feed or via Twitter. The thing about the article that really disturbed people was that, previous to seeing the piece, many had been under the impression that their wine, specifically Charles Shaw by Trader Joe’s, was prepared in a manner more akin to traditional wine making rather than in a big agri-business way like corn or soybean production. Sure, no one thought it was some artisan process but they weren’t expecting to learn what they learned. Specifically, this bit regarding mechanized production of wine sent a couple of my friends over the top.
And it not only grabs ripe grapes, but unripe and down right rotten ones as well and throws them all together. Add to that leaves, stems and any rodents, birds, or insects that may have made those vines their home – they all get thrown into the bin as well. And guess what? You think there’s going to be any sorting when that truck arrives at the winery (or should I say processing facility)? Nope. Everything, and I do mean everything (including all those unripe grapes, rotten grapes, leaves, stems, birds, rodents, and insects) gets tossed into the crusher and transferred to large tanks to ferment. So think about all the animal blood and parts that may have made their way into your wine next time you crack open that bottle of Two Buck Chuck! Hardly even seems worth the $2 does it?
Now, if you don’t care about how what you drink is made then you should stop reading right here but if you do then keep going. You’re about to discover that the majority of American wines sold today are made with a process that includes grinding things up and making “bird wine.”
After reading the original article, I did an interview with a someone who is a wine expert of many years and very familiar with the industry. He’d like to remain working in the industry and some of what I’m about to discuss involves companies he works with so he’ll be remaining anonymous but below is his take on this whole question. To get us going, here’s a couple of points about how American wine is different from European wine.
In Short? Standards and Truth in Labeling
In Europe, wine labeling and standards are extremely tightly controlled by the government and the entire industry is highly regulated. For instance, in France it is completely illegal to grow a grape outside its traditional region and this is done for quality purposes stemming from well over a thousand years of trial and error. What’s more, government required labeling in Europe indicates quality in a general way using a four tiered system. There is no such standardization in the U.S. The FDA absolutely does allow mechanized wineries like the one mentioned in the HuffPo article to grind up whatever’s on the vines and make wine with it. The FDA’s job is to determine that the final product is safe, not that it’s good or even whether or not the process of making it is disgusting. So, there is no group of impartial Americans out there keeping you from drinking terrible things and disclosure about the winemaking process is absolutely not required. Here’s some label examples on European wine.
I don’t want to bog you down in exactly what the labels mean. Suffice to say there is nothing similar to these labels in the U.S. If you’re really interested then you can go here for an exhaustive explanation. In Europe, if you’re buying low quality swill then it’s going to have some kind of indication on the label.
The Truth About Lower Priced Wines in the U.S. Hinges on Two Facts
- There are actually very few large winemakers.
- Most of the wine you drink is the same regardless of label.
If you recall the Simpsons episode where a giant vat of Duff beer is being poured into two different Duff brands, Duff and Duff Light, then you’re getting close to understanding how cheap wine is made in the U.S. It’s all branding. With a few exceptions that I’ll mention later, all cheap wines are actually the same wine made by the same small group of people in giant factories.
To give an idea of the scale of many of today’s winemaking operations, here’s a map of the Charles Shaw factory courtesy of Google Maps. It’s a far cry from the barrels they and other winemakers like them would like you to think they use.
Out of vats like these at other wineries, many different brands of wine will be made of varying price points but they’re all of roughly the same quality. Your $17 bottle of American Chardonnay is very likely made in the exact same manner and with the same kind of low quality ingredients as were described in the HuffPo/Quora article . The only difference is that they’re made with different grapes. That’s it. It’s all branding. So, in a way, you’re paying 15 extra dollars not to feel like you’re buying some of the cheapest wine the civilized world has ever seen even though you absolutely are. The same birds and insects and terrible grapes are in all wines where the grapes are harvested by tractor. A tractor doesn’t know rotten grapes from good and it doesn’t care if a squirrel, bird, or wasp’s nest gets thrown into the batch. Granted, these things do get filtered out but not before they’ve first all been picked together by a tractor with no ability to discriminate between good grapes and “other.”
I Actually Like Wine, How Can I Avoid “Bird Wine?”
Since most large American winemakers try very hard to hide exactly how their wines are made from the consumer it can be extremely difficult but here’s some guidelines:
- The cuter the label, the worse the likely quality of the wine is. Go for boring labels with meaningful words that seek to communicate information about the wine.
- There’s a false fact out there that screw off bottles indicate poor quality. Screw caps don’t mean what you think they mean. Most wines are not intended to be aged or stored and so corks aren’t necessary. If anything, a screw off cap indicates that the company is more considerate of its consumers.
- If the wine is made in any of the following cities in California then they’re practically guaranteed to be “bird wine”: Gratin, Manteca, Ceres, Madera, or Modesto. Wineries located in these cities are literally known in the industry as “tank farms” and this is where the bulk of American cheap wine originates, bugs and all.
- Where you buy your wine will largely dictate what quality is available to you. If you’re buying wine from huge liquor store or wine store chains, grocery stores of the non-gourmet variety (with the exception of Whole Foods and no, I’m not just pumping up Whole Foods), and any pharmacy or department store, then you are 100% guaranteed to be drinking “bird wine.” If you’re buying your wine from a smaller store that’s independently run by a person you can see behind the counter then they will most likely have more invested in the wines they carry because they’ll have likely picked them out personally and have more knowledge about wine in general. They won’t be trying to sell you the cheapest thing they have simply because they’ve got 10 cases of it. As usual, buying local will get better results and you won’t have to sacrifice cost that much. After all, lots of these mechanized wines are $17 and have no right to be.
What Are Some Specific “Bird Wine” Brands That You Should Avoid
Suffice to say that you’re probably drinking them regularly. Almost all popular wine brands are produced in a mechanized way that gathers everything from the vines and mixes it in the vats. Remember, even though labels may call themselves a “family vineyard” this is only true in the same way that Wal-Mart is a “family owned” department store. There are no beautiful children running free among these vineyards.
But Seriously, I want Some Labels Of Some Good American Wines
The following are not “bird wines.” They’re American wines that aren’t produced in a mechanized way. Human hands actually pick these grapes. There will be no birds or insects that have indiscriminately been ground into the final product. They are vegan and vegetarian friendly. They are distinctly non-gross and are available from between $12 to $20, roughly what you might pay for “high quality” bird wine.
My friend was hard pressed to come up with this many brands of moderately-priced, high quality American wines. That’s because the large, cheap winemakers have increasingly taken over the market and pushed the quality winemakers to its margins. When you eliminate both human labor and quality it’s easy to bring down cost. However, I don’t want you to think this list is exhaustive. Investigate for yourself with your local wine seller.
Two Things You Should Take Away From This
If you want to drink very cheap wine, what I’ve referred to as “bird wine” then that’s your choice but please, please, don’t overpay for it. Do not pay $17 for a $2 wine. It’s a scam and you’re being cheated with a cute label, a false backstory, and the false idea that what you’re drinking is anything better than a jug of Carlo Rossi. Don’t overpay for something that’s essentially the Coca Cola of wine but with less quality control.
If you want to avoid cheap, poorly made wine that has lots of things in it that you don’t want to drink then you have choices. It’s not very difficult to exercise that choice with the little bit of information I’ve discussed here. If that sounds good to you then go out and get something better and stop supporting an industry that is completely unconcerned with giving you a good product.