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Just add water

Times Staff Writer

Karl WENTE presses the back of his hand down into the vat of crushed Cabernet grapes, then watches the dark purple liquid fill his cupped palm. He sips the newly fermented juice, which will become an ambitious new wine, Wente Family Estates Nth Degree Cabernet. He plans to sell it for $50 a bottle.

Wente smiles, clearly delighted with the result: He’s added just the right amount of water to the wine.

Water? Into wine?

That’s heresy, as far as most wine lovers are concerned. The idea of pouring a few buckets of water into a steel fermentation tank smacks of watering down, stretching and cheapening wine. And to do it in pursuit of a showcase wine -- the Wente family’s first -- well, who would do such a thing?

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Actually, in California it’s been done for decades. Wente, an aggressive 27-year-old, fifth-generation winemaker in Livermore, stands out not because he adds water to his wines, but because he’s willing to talk about it.

Wente is shattering the silence, he says, because “watering back” -- adding water during fermentation -- can be an important tool for improving California wines. It’s a way to make more elegant wines, he says, and sometimes it is the way to turn a good wine into a great wine. And if more vintners would talk about it, he figures, the practice would gain public understanding and acceptance.

Perhaps. But the controversial practice has become so widespread, while no one was noticing, that it is calling into question whether a number of prominent California regions are even appropriate places to grow wine grapes.

“Watering back” is a reaction to the California wine industry’s growing propensity to make ever more powerful wines, the kind that earn critical acclaim and command high prices. Wente is among the growing ranks of winemakers who question whether intensity should be achieved at the expense of elegance and finesse.

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Bruno D’Alfonso, the winemaker at Sanford Winery in Santa Barbara County since 1983, may be the most vocal advocate of what he calls “interventionist” winemaking.

Leaving grapes to hang on the vine until they are fully ripe makes wine that is a welcome change from the thin, herbaceous vintages that areas like Santa Barbara used to produce, says D’Alfonso. The problem is the wine they produce can be too alcoholic.

It’s a problem throughout the state: As bold and even exciting as some of California’s flashier wines can be, they also can be so alcoholic that they’re out of balance.

There is so much alcohol in most California wine that it isn’t drinkable, says Karen MacNeil, chairwoman of the Culinary Institute of America’s Rudd Center for Wine Studies in Napa, who likens them to “a woman with gaudy makeup, dressed in stiletto heels and fake furs.” All it takes is “a little water to lift that curtain of alcohol so you can taste the wine,” she says.

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“On the face of it, you hear ‘watering down’ and think it’s a scandal,” says MacNeil, referring to the potential for consumer fraud. “In point of fact, I’ve never heard of a single instance where water was used that way.”

The French absolutely consider the practice to be fraud. “It is an economic fraud because you sell water at the price of wine,” says Cedric Saucier, a member of the oenology faculty at the University of Bordeaux.

Adding water at any point in the winemaking process has been illegal in France since 1907 and now is illegal in all countries that are members of the International Organization of Vine and Wine, which includes all of the European Union nations.

“This law was introduced at that time because there was an overproduction of wine in general,” Saucier says. “If you increase the yield of wine either by viticultural practice or by watering down the wine, you will decrease wine quality.”

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That is, unless there’s a crisis, says Sicilian vintner Marco de Grazia, who exports a broad selection of Italian wines to the United States. Last year’s vintage in Sicily, for instance, was characterized by an extremely hot and dry summer. Sugar concentrations went through the roof. There were stuck fermentations everywhere, he says.

De Grazia is quick to say he didn’t add water during fermentation, but that many of the vintners he knows did. “It’s illegal, of course. But what are you going to do?”

Enough to do the job

Here in California, it’s legal -- sort of. State regulations allow adding water “to facilitate fermentation.” The intent is to avoid technical disasters from occurring during the winemaking process, most specifically what is known as “stuck fermentation,” in which the sugars in the juice do not convert to alcohol. The amount of water and and whether it is necessary to add it are left entirely to the discretion of the winemaker.

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The regulatory emphasis is on “enough water” to do the job. Wente says that meant adding as much as 20% water to certain fermentation lots this year. (In Australia, by comparison, regulations allow no more than 3% water by volume.)

Local regulations reflect local necessity, according to Mary Ewing Mulligan, a master of wine and president of the International Wine Center in New York City. Although throughout France it is illegal to add water to wine, in Burgundy, where the typically rainy, cold weather retards the natural development of sugar in the grapes, winemakers are allowed to add sugar during fermentation, a process known as chaptalization.

Adding sugar is less invasive than adding water, says Saucier. “When you add sugar to the juice, it affects only the alcohol of the resulting wine. If you add water, you are diluting and modifying all your initial wine parameters, including thousands of quality compounds like aromas and polyphenols.”

But Mulligan argues that adding water is no worse than adding sugar. “I see it as a correction that should be used when it’s necessary and appropriate -- that is, when the grapes have been left too long on the vine and sugars are too high, making the alcohol levels unacceptable,” she says.

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In general, she notes, alcohol levels in California wine are “way out of whack. The great majority burn in the rear palate. The wines are difficult to drink.”

The universality of the problem in California and the resulting need to add water every year raises a bigger question for Mulligan: “You need to rethink whether you should grow grapes in a region that needs to have overripe fruit to get the flavors you want,” she says. “Call it what it is and don’t charge these high prices for the wine.”

Sanford’s D’Alfonso calls it “demystifying the winemaking process.” Too many winemakers, he says, take a “hands-off” approach with these bigger wines, leaving the wines to drown in the alcohol.

The 2004 Santa Barbara vintage is a case in point. A 103-degree heat wave blasted the region just before harvest in September. Despite a four-alarm rush to pick the grapes before they dehydrated, D’Alfonso says no one escaped unscathed.

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“If you didn’t add water this year, you didn’t have Pinot Noir in Santa Barbara. It’s that simple,” he says.

Kris Curran, the winemaker at Sea Smoke Cellars, a new boutique label in the region, agrees. “This was the year you had to add water or get high residual sugars,” she says.

“There are ‘flat earth’ people out there who believe in faith-based winemaking,” says D’Alfonso. “I’m more like Copernicus. I’m a chemist. I believe in science. These vines didn’t plant themselves. And the wine doesn’t make itself.”

For D’Alfonso, this year it means his wines are up to 15% added water by volume.

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The necessity of adding water is a matter of simple chemistry for winemakers like D’Alfonso and Wente. In much of California, sugars develop early in wine grapes and continue to build up until harvest. The rest of the flavors and tannins that make great wine may not show until later, in some cases not until the grapes are overripe.

By contrast, in places like France with cooler, more inclement weather, the sugars in wine grapes develop more slowly and in concert with the rest of the flavors and tannins. Sometimes they fail to develop fully, or at all.

Wineries across California have been leaving their grapes to hang on the vine for longer and longer periods of time, striving to capture the full complement of flavors. That means the grapes have high sugar levels, which translate into high-alcohol wines, as high as 18%.

Table wine is legally defined as having less than 14% alcohol, so the issue isn’t only one of balance; excessive alcohol also raises the federal excise tax rate wineries must pay on the wine (see sidebar).

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To tone down the alcohol, there are only two options, says Linda Bisson, professor oenology at UC Davis: Add water during fermentation. Or de-alcoholize the wine after fermentation, which, from Bisson’s perspective, is a far more invasive mechanical process, and so, less desirable.

“If it’s important to have full flavors,” says Bisson, “then you need to add water.”

Before April 2002, no one would have admitted that, according to Wendell Lee, general counsel for the industry-supported Wine Institute. Until then, the conventional understanding of the state regulations was that nothing more than the moisture left in a tank after washing was allowed. The Wine Institute strongly advised its members against adding water during fermentation at all.

That changed as California wineries sought out riper and riper fruit. Then fermentation problems started to rise along with the sugar levels. Specifically, the yeasts used to convert sugar into alcohol during winemaking were overwhelmed by the high sugars, shutting down the fermentation process before it was complete. These stuck fermentations, which tasted like Kool-Aid, were worthless as wine.

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The simple solution was to add water during fermentation to dilute the sugar concentrations. When it worked, it saved the vintage. Two years ago, the Wine Institute requested a reinterpretation of the state regulations concerning the addition of water, and got it.

‘Rehydrating’ grapes

As a matter of practice, however, the state doesn’t act as a watchdog on this issue.

“Do we go looking for it? No,” says Patrick Kennelly, chief of the food safety inspection unit of the state Department of Health Services in charge of overseeing winemaking. “With budget cuts, less staff, our focus is on public health, not this.”

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In case the state suddenly becomes stricter in interpretation and/or enforcement of this issue, the Wine Institute suggests that “watering back” only be used, or discussed, as a solution for stuck fermentations.

Still, vintners like Wente and D’Alfonso commonly talk about using it to control alcohol levels. It also is popular to talk about adding water to “rehydrate” the grapes. The theory is that the winemaker is replacing only the water that was lost from the grapes as they hung in the hot September sun.

Although this rhetoric may help alleviate consumer anxieties, it raises a red flag to grape growers who sell their grapes to vintners by the ton.

These farmers are making less money per ton of grapes because of dehydration in the field, and they say they should be compensated, especially if the vintner is going to add water back once those grapes are in the winery. And because wineries don’t have to report how much water they add to their wines, the grape growers are becoming more and more concerned, according to Karen Ross, president of the California Assn. of Winegrape Growers.

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To winemakers like Wente and D’Alfonso, however, the richer flavors from the longer hang times are worth the cost, however it is parsed. From their point of view, it’s all part of the evolution of California wine.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Testing the limits

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The federal excise tax wineries must pay on wines under 14% alcohol is $1.07 per gallon. Above 14% alcohol, the excise tax increases to $1.57 per gallon. Under 14% alcohol, a 1.5 percentage point variance in the labeled alcohol content is allowed, but it can’t exceed the 14% limit. A 13.9% wine can be labeled between 13.9% and 12.4%. But if the wine is 14% alcohol or more, there is only a 1 point variance in the labeled alcohol content. So a 15% wine can be labeled as low as 14%, but if it’s exactly 14%, it cannot be labeled any lower than 14%.

Because of the negative connotation of high alcohol, vintners almost always label their wines at the lowest possible alcohol levels.


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