Is the Wine Industry Stuck in the Past?

sailing shipIn a post entitled “Will Wine Ever Come out of the 18th Century?” Bob on Sonoma had a thoughtful discussion on resistance to change in the wine industry:

Here we are in the 21st century with computers in our hands connecting us to the world, and we have pictures of galaxies from billions of years ago, but we’re still trying to pull corks from wine bottles without breaking them. The wine industry is stuck in the past.

We’ve used technology to improve the general quality of wine. But, on the other hand, winemaking uses too much water and electricity and produces too much carbon dioxide. And despite some progress on gender issues, sexual harassment is still far too common (as is the lack of diversity in the industry.)

Then there is the issue of barrels:

We use trees that take many decades to grow to make wood barrels after the wood is seasoned for months. The staves are bent and toasted before metal hoops are put on. After all that, the barrels aren’t perfect, plus they can’t be used very many times. Then there are those big, heavy glass bottles just in one size with a piece of tree bark as a closure that has plenty of its own flaws.

You might as well still use sailing ships to transport wine around the world.

The environmental and sexual harassment issues are of course not unique to the wine industry. And it would be inaccurate to say the industry is ignoring them. These problems are intractable because their origins and potential solutions extend far beyond one industry.

But the problems of cork enclosures, heavy glass bottles, and aging and storage vessels are specific to the wine industry. We have alternatives to cork enclosures and heavy glass bottles and there is no good reason why they haven’t been adopted. (Yes there is a debate about screwcaps and ageing but the vast majority of wines sold in the U.S. are not made to be aged.) It seems to be about consumer expectations more than anything else. Some leadership from major players in the industry would help.

As to wine barrels, I’m not sure we’ve discovered an alternative that aerates wine in dosages that produce the flavor profiles we enjoy. The science of wine ageing is still not well understood. There are of course a myriad of products—staves, chips, shavings, powder etc.—that will impart oak flavor if used carefully. Some very successful winemakers swear by them and use them more often than is often acknowledged.  Despite some uncertainty about these alternatives, the problem doesn’t seem intractable.

I’m not sure the industry is stuck in the past. Rather, I think change happens slowly because everything about wine happens slowly. Winemakers tend to be very empirical. They experiment and then use their own observations to judge which experiments are worth pursuing. But it often can take several years to know whether an experiment was successful or not.

Wine is a “slow art” based on watchful waiting—for vineyards to develop, for grapes to grow, for fermentations to finish, for wines to age. Developments that affect the flavor of wine will be slow to implement because experiments can take years to produce results.

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