The True Cost of Cheap Wine

Since everyone seems to be weighing in on the Bianca Bosker-Cork Dork controversy I’d like to add my own two cents.

I’m a bit disappointed that we missed a great opportunity for constructive debate on several key issues, but I’m truly beside myself that what little discussion did take place turned frivolous with petty charges of wine snobbery and elitism. Crowded out were the critical issues of industrial farming, the morality of laboratory manipulations that pander to consumer tastes and the hidden costs of manufactured wine. By the end of the Cork Dork discussion Big Wine benefited from all the smoke it generated and actually emerged from the haze positioned as the victim. Several wine professionals even apologized to The Big Boys for being so snobby about wine, bemoaning the fact that their professional ethics might confuse or even, heaven forbid, offend the masses.

In all the bluster the central question was never addressed: Should satisfying a questionable consumer need— cheap, dumbed-down wine—be subsidized by the rest of us. And by subsidized I mean its true cost in wasted resources, outright pollution, health consequences, human exploitation and the like. In this way the discussion is somewhat analogous to the fast food industry and industrially grown food versus the organic and sustainable community of farmers—organic granola versus Fruit Loops™, so to speak.

Hidden Costs of Cheap Wine

I suppose a two-dollar bottle of wine makes a fifteen-dollar bottle of wine look expensive. No argument there. But let’s take a closer look at how much the cheaper wine really costs.

Farming: The factory farming of constituent grapes is a common feature of cheap wine production. Typical of such a practice is the wide use of synthetic chemicals in the form of herbicides, pesticides and fungicides. The consequences of such farming practices are well known and can include adverse health outcomes for workers—both acute and long-term—and environmental concerns including damage to wildlife, groundwater and the chemical industry’s self-sustaining-loop of disease resistance begetting new chemical formulations.

Nitrogen pollution from fertilizers damages streams and waterways before finding its way to our oceans where toxic blooms do damage to seemingly unrelated layers of life. The effects of chemical poisoning are rippling and far-reaching—and costly. Is Big Wine paying its fair share for the damage it causes? Not at two-dollars a bottle, my friends.

Manufacture: This is only to mention in passing the potential health effects upon consumption—especially over the long term. Last time I checked processed wine is rarely below 13.5% alcohol by volume and frequently quite a bit above. The popular wine descriptors big, rich, powerful, gutsy are all euphemisms for high alcohol and assertive flavors. Flavors that may be chemically derived. Because there is no mandatory ingredient labelling it is impossible to say which added components one might want to avoid and which may actually be harmful. Just be aware that there are several dozens of permitted additives in the manufacture of wine and there is no obligation to name them. Big Wine is an ardent opponent to ingredient labeling. Caveat emptor.

Water: The type of monoculture practiced in vast swaths of vineyard presents different issues. Monoculture is known to contribute to erosion from wind and rain and when coupled with synthetic chemical treatment the biodiversity of the soil and the surrounding environment is destroyed. Virtual deserts are the result and in California where water is in short supply the true cost of cheap wine is most keenly felt. Tens of thousands of acres of grapes destined for cheap wine literally suck the Central Valley dry, wasting a precious resource in order to supply a steady stream of cheap brands. This is an absurd trade-off that has nothing to do with snobbery or elitism.

Water is also wasted in the winery itself. It is well established that making wine is one of the most water intensive activities on the planet. The true cost of water in California is not being paid back by cheap wine. Guess who suffers the consequences while Big Wine profits.

Transportation and Packaging: The packaging of cheap wine is also an abomination. Franzia, for instance, continues to use a cork-like enclosure to gussy-up its bottles of Two-Buck Chuck in pursuit of faux-value—talk about make-up on a pig. Wines such as this should be relegated to boxes or bags at the very least in order to diminish their way out-of-whack carbon footprint.

Industrial wine is so cheap to produce that transport by tanker across international borders is profitable. Unrest in southern France is directly attributable to cheap wine produced in Spain. In this way a troubled region with out-of-whack economies of scale and differing social needs can disrupt the economy of its neighbor by exporting its excesses. In trade talk this is called dumping and its consequences are considerable.

Conclusions: With so many pressing and consequential issues at hand do we really need to have a discussion about the pleasing aroma and pleasant mouthfeel of Layer Cake Zinfandel?

No? Then you’re a snob.

Is there really a goût de San Joaquin Valley that exists outside a lab?

If there is, I don’t really want to know it.

Cheap wine is a commodity that feeds the same fast-food mentality that contributes to disastrous health, environmental and social consequences worldwide. Cheap wine misrepresents the true cost of the real thing because like its counterpart, the fast food industry, it benefits from a fragile and shrinking infrastructure of resources at a great but invisible cost to society. Any time our wine community misses an opportunity to discuss these issues then we have done our audience a disservice. Far from confusing the public, real knowledge is the impetus for change and the only hope for a thoughtful, responsible consumerism.

 

 

 

13 thoughts on “The True Cost of Cheap Wine

  1. As a winemaker and grape grower, I have some thoughts on a few of the bill of particulars.
    1) Nitrogen pollution–grapevines are very small users of nitrogen, and nitrogen more than a very small amount per acre is actually detrimental to grape quality, no matter what the price point. San Joaquin Valley aquifers have problems with nitrogen pollution, but not from grapevines. The same applies to the Salinas Valley.
    2) your accusation that wineries are big users of water (and by implication, that they waste it) is false. Water used in a winery in the course of making a vintage is a) ever smaller as technology improves and b) increasingly recycled for irrigation.
    3) regarding monoculture, use Google Earth to have a look at Languedoc-Roussilon or at Bordeaux.

    Many of the points expressed here are legitimate, or legitimately debatable. These stick out as falsifiable, and lacking in factual confirmation.

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    1. David, thanks for weighing in. I know you to be a responsible grower and excellent winemaker and I take your comments to heart. My broader point is about the morality of cheap wine. Hidden costs are paid all along the line from production to consumption.

      Appropriate crops need to be planted in places where water is in short supply. This does not include grapes, almonds and other similar things in the SJ Valley. Dry farming is one thing, like at Saintsbury, but another in the heat of the Valley. Consumers should be aware of these things and not baited into discussions about wine snobbery and elitism. People should drink what they want but they should know the context.

      As for other regions, I agree the issues are the same and universal and I point them out frequently in my writing. I come from California so it seemed more honest and familiar for to me to speak about its issues.

      Again thanks for your comments and I wish I could find the odd bottle of Brown Vineyard Pinot here in Switzerland. Although I do love Swiss wine.

      Best regards.

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  2. There are lots of good points made here about monoculture, water and the environment. Water in particular – it makes no sense for wine producers to be exporting water via bottles of cheap wine.

    But it’s very easy to make $2 bottles of wine without trickery or exploitation – producers just have to buy bulk wine on the spot market and then blend it to taste or need. As of February 2017, it was possible to buy quite decent quality wine from Chile for $0.68/L, and Tempranillo from Spain for $0.68/L. In Europe, the grapes for these types of wines are often produced by small family concerns and then sent to regional cooperatives for vinification. Notably, a lot of bulk wine comes from warmer, inland regions, where there is little disease pressure and so less to no need for pesticides and herbicides. And then there are bulk producers in countries like Austria, where wine production is very clean and green. These are the sorts of wines that end up on supermarket shelves around the world, often packaged as home brands.

    So commercial production is not necessarily less environmentally sustainable than other sectors of the market, and in some cases it’s better e.g. than some premium regions of France, where pesticide use is the norm.

    In the case of the big companies, it’s sadly often the case that the big producers are the ones with the money and time to spend on extensive environmental and sustainability programs.

    Commercial wines are typically transported globally in flexitanks, which is less harmful to the environment that premium wines being shipped in heavy bottles, or very super premium wines which in some countries may spend years in temperature and humidity controlled environments (lots of use of electricity).

    The point of all of this is that the production of cheap, commodity wines is a lot more complicated than it looks at first. And also, once the discussion turns to monoculture, treatment of farm workers etc, then the prestige players aren’t always better, and in some cases are worse.

    As for commodity wine being dumbed down, though, the quality of wine has never been higher, historically speaking. Today’s cheap, fruity wine is a better deal than the cheap wines of 20 or 30 years ago, where plenty of unripe or even rotten grapes ended up in the bottle.

    Kudos for opening the discussion up in this direction, though. It’s well overdue that we talked about water and monoculture.

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    1. Thanks Felicity for understanding my desire to expand the conversation beyond snobbery and elitism. I don’t really care what people drink but I think they should also be aware that there are costs associated with choice.

      An example. As we know cheap Spanish wine crossing the French border is not especially appreciated by French growers. The point is cheap wine has consequences beyond the place where it is grown no matter how sustainably. Should Spanish practices negatively impact French growers. Are Spanish workers paid the same as French? Do they work under the same conditions?

      In California critical water resources are turned into two dollar bottles of wine, often cheaper than the same sized bottle of water. This makes no sense.

      My only desire is to expand the discussion to include the hidden costs of cheap wine or any agricultural product for that matter. My expertise happens to be wine.

      Thanks so much for weighing in. I’m honored that you took the time. Cheers.

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      1. This question of unfair competition by cheaper production is a difficult one. It’s shocking to see Spanish wines in French supermarkets, often badged as if they were French. You have to look closely to see where the wine comes from. But the Spanish can produce more cheaply, because their wine economy has more big players than France’s does, and that changes the economies of scale. (Also, the French have more paperwork to deal with.) Then again, those small French winemakers get more EU subsidies than the Spanish companies do. So, swings and roundabouts.

        I completely agree that the environment doesn’t need cheap, irrigated fruit going into wine. But it doesn’t need expensive, irrigated fruit (e.g. from posh Washington State wineries) going into wine either…

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      1. “As for Ms. Bosker’s book—I haven’t read it and don’t plan to”

        With this gratuitous comment, you have neatly defined the kind of ‘constructive debate’ – to use your expression – that you seek.

        How would you feel about someone saying

        “As for the artisanswiss blog post—I haven’t read it and don’t plan to”

        However, I will treat you with rather more respect than you afford Ms Bosker

        Some of the points you make are very valid.

        Winemaking in irrigated regions uses a lot of water – as do wineries.

        Monoculture – whatever the crop – is undesirable.

        Ingredient labelling for wine would be totally desirable

        However, conflating these with a rant against ‘Big Wine’ is merely demonstrative of the kind of prejudice Bianca Bosker sought to attack.

        ‘Big Wine’ has absolutely no monopoly over the use of fertiliser, pesticides or irrigation. Indeed, some large producers are actually more environmentally responsible than many smaller ones.

        In the Central Valley, vinous monoculture is actually giving way to (more profitable, but environmentally questionable) almond growing. In Europe, however, where bulk wine costs are far lower than in the US, monoculture is common – usually in the hands of large numbers of small, family-owned vineyards.

        When it comes to labeling There is nothing stopping the winegrowers of Brunello or Beaune from revealing their use of egg whites for fining on their back labels, if that’s what they wanted to do.

        You fairly complain about Two Buck Chuck closures. I could complain about the environmental impact of shipping small producers’ glass bottles across the globe. Branded wines Transporting large quantities of wine in flexitanks and locally packing it in recyclable bag-in-box format is FAR better for the planet, if that’s what concerns you.

        But even if Gallo and Kendall Jackson et al all signed up for verifiably sustainable agricultural and packaging and shipping programmes and voluntarily listed every ingredient that went into their bottles, I’ll bet that you would still dislike them and their wines on purely philosophical grounds. You don’t like corporations and you don’t think big wine companies make the kind of wine you like and want other people to like.

        Just be honest enough to admit this and move on.

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      2. Thanks for your comments. I respect the opinions of fellow professionals and take them to heart. Especially well reasoned ones such as yours.

        Everything you say is absolutely true (except the part about me being a hater) but there is one central flaw in your argument as I see it. No one, except Big Wine, can sell a two dollar bottle of wine at a profit. There are bottles of water that cost more. What justifies such a price and what perceptions about the world and real human costs does this message send to consumers. Not a good one I’m afraid.

        We all know the world isn’t perfect but as you say big wine may be moving in the right direction but I fear my president’s environmental and business friendly policies may undo some of that. It’s up to us to represent the other side of the coin, the ones without a marketing budget, to bring about the changes we want to see.

        As for Ms. Bosker, perhaps it was unfair of me to dismiss her work when so many have already done so. That wasn’t the point of my piece anyway.

        Thanks for reading my piece and for your comments. I truly enjoy your work. Best regards.

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