We consumers are trusting souls. If someone tells us something on TV, or if we read descriptions of products on the internet, well, that’s it. What has been said is The Truth. Has to be. We read it online or it came through the broadcast screen.
Those media do carry the weight of credibility. Heck, even this column has to be right all of the time. And if it is not, maybe it’s just your perception that is working overtime. Can’t be our fault. I would never lie to you. At least not intentionally. And you, a trusting reader, think nothing of repeating what you have read or heard as if it were the Gospel of St. Paul in his Letters to the Ephesians.
Sometimes an untruth is not a blatant statement of error. Sometimes an untruth is a statement of absence – what is not said can be just as important as what is said. We’ve all been in sales situations where the person doing the selling seems to disclose all we need to know but a little information is held back and then that “Oh, did I mention….?" jumps up and bites us in the ass later.
In this age of product labels that seem to fully disclose, or our elected officials touting transparency, the devil likes to hide behind the information not noted. Often there is no malice in such non-disclosures, “they” just don’t think you need to know or that what is unsaid is all that important. And there is also the possibility that maybe even if you knew, you would not know what the meaning is or what to do with the information.
Wine and spirits labels are full of such non-disclosure. I guess that’s okay because nothing is in those liquids that can harm you or make you sick, unless you don’t use the products correctly or don’t respect them. That, of course, is true of just about everything you touch. Ingest too much at the wrong time in the wrong place and you are suddenly dealing with a situation where your faculties are not at a point where good decisions can happen. But that is not all what we are dealing with in this message. We will not be talking about cases where the manufacturer can be held responsible for your personal bad decisions.
We are addressing here your understanding of what is in the bottle. For instance, almost all wines and spirits are “blends,” mostly a mix of the dominant grape(s) or grains and similar materials used to make the statement the winemaker or distiller wants to make. While the bottle is labeled Merlot from Napa Valley, it is rarely only that. That label descriptor, according to law, has to have at least 75% of that fruit from that place in the mix and that’s enough.
That leaves, possibly, 25% of the contents of the bottle described as Merlot from Napa Valley to be something else from someplace else. But disclosures on labels about these points are not often clear or present. The obfuscation is, however, legal.
The other side of the purity case has to do not with different grapes in the bottle, but with grapes coming from different directions. Maybe fruit from another place on the property is used, or fruit from a neighbor’s property, or even fruit from a completely different part of the state, which might be less expensive, is added. All of these blends impact what you smell and taste. Sometimes what you have fallen in love with is not what you think it is at all. In that regard, it’s a lot like life.
In wine there are a whole chemistry set of artificial and natural additives coming into the picture at various points in the manufacturing and aging steps, which are perfectly within the definition and legality of the beverage. These additives include coloring, sweetening (chaptalization), acidification, flavorings and even plain water. The same and similar actions may occur during the distillation and aging processes in the spirits world.
Tito’s “Handmade” Vodka is in the midst of a lawsuit brought by a consumer group who properly notes that any product produced at the rate of over a million cases a year cannot be hand-made. True enough. Is it worth a court case over? Who was harmed? Maybe misled a tad, but harmed? I guess the courts will decide.
Sometimes a spirit will add in molasses to give the product additional depth of color or flavor lacking from the raw ingredient. This is a particularly irritating but common practice in Cognac but again, it’s quite legal.
In all, we need to eradicate the word “pure” from the list of descriptors of wine and spirits. In these situations, the opposite of pure is not dirty or sullied. More likely the beverage is adulterated and even altered for a wide variety of reasons, most importantly to fully flesh out the winemakers’ or distillers’ goals.
But the stuff sure is good, and, after all, that is the ultimate test. Pure is not important. Enjoyment is.
Read Happy Hour here on www.myneworleans.com every Wednesday, and listen to The Dine, Wine and Spirits Show, hosted by Tim, every weekday, 3:00 – 5:00 p.m. on WGSO 990AM and streamed at www.wgso.com. Also check out Last Call, Tim’s photo-feature every month in New Orleans Magazine. Be sure to watch "Appetite for Life" every Thursday evening at 7:00 p.m. on WLAE-TV, Channel 32 in New Orleans.