Clean Wine Has A Messaging Problem: My Opinion

Food & Drink

The phrase “clean wine” elicits a reaction akin to finger nails scraping across an old slate blackboard—to those of you unfamiliar with the sensation, consider yourself lucky. Now that you know my visceral reaction to what I view as a fad, an explanation is in order.

I’m unsure what clean wine is, but I know that wine begins as dirt, or at least as grapes on vines planted in dirt. In addition, since they live outdoors with minimal canopy cover, even organically grown grapes taken into the winery for processing bring with them dust blown by the wind, as well as bird waste and insect parts, not to mention potential fungus residue. Sorting, pressing and fermenting somewhat cleans up some of the mess, and by ending anywhere from 9% to 15% alcohol the resulting juice is somewhat sanitized, too. 

Yes, I am being facetious—you and I know that some people add things to wine. Do those additions make the wine dirty? Do clean wine promoters provide the answer to that question?

We probably should all embrace the concept of buying products that have experienced as little human intervention as possible. Some of us follow this line of thinking in our food preferences and even in the natural-fiber clothing we wear, so it should be with wine, too. At times, however, the quest for perceived purity can lead to absurdity, especially when those espousing a purist viewpoint seem to want to start a war. 

If you want to make war you need to be willing to get into the trenches. By that I mean when you talk about scientific matters you ought to know something about the science; when you talk about production methods, you ought to know that subject, too; and when you talk about what goes on a wine label, at least study the regulations. Some of what I’ve read recently concerning clean wine has exposed a lack in the knowledge department. At best they are misleading, and at their worst they are just wrong.

In fact, rather than an information campaign, the clean wine people, some of whom are celebrities like Cameron Diaz, seem largely engaged in a negative promotional campaign. They try to scare people into buying their products by claiming other wines will give you hives or bloated liver or celeriac disease or other ailments, and they do this without offering an iota of diagnostic proof—if drinking wine makes you feel sick by self-diagnosis a doctor may be needed more than a new wine.

A famous Paul Masson ad in the 1970s and 80s had Orson Welles, a celebrity, telling consumers, “We will sell no wine before its time.” Notice the positive aspect of that ad line, but also notice its unsaid reference to the competition, the implication being that other wine producers might sell their wine before its time. That kind of ad promotes a product in a positive way, highlighting its individual merit without denigrating other producers or products.

Over many years in the business I’ve touched all aspects of the wine industry, as a grape grower, winemaker, wine writer and wine marketer and salesman. I say with confidence it is not a good idea to promote your product by tearing down the competition. It’s only a matter of time before people with knowledge and facts find a way to weaken your story; they may even question your sincerity: see Master Sommelier and wine author Victoria James’ letter to the industry.

Finally, even consumers who might respond to negative messaging will still measure your product against what they have been drinking. If the clean wine you produce or represent does not offer an exceptional experience, those consumers will probably turn to the next fad wine, or maybe they will turn to hard seltzer!

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