What's in a Wine?


The first wines were made—or, better said, made themselves—some 8000 years ago between the Caspian and Black Seas in the area that today includes eastern Turkey, northern Iran, Georgia, and Armenia. We can surmise that early hunter-gatherers picked wild grapes. Occasionally, instead of eating them, they may have crushed them for juice and perhaps forgotten them for a week or two. Attracted to the sugar, bees and wasps would have carried yeasts to grapes already broken on the vine by birds or wind; those yeasts fermented the juice. When tasted, it had been transformed—as if by magic or a divine hand—from simple, sweet fruit into something affecting the senses in surprising and enjoyable ways. In the Christian ritual of Communion, this natural transformation became a symbol for wine as the blood of Christ.

Until the 20th century, wine continued to be made by natural yeasts fermenting the sweet juice. From the earliest days, unfortunately, if not consumed in the first few months, the wines turned to vinegar. Well-sealed, large amphora kept the wines longer but when they began to sour, spices, herbs, honey, and occasionally less savory additives, made them more palatable. One early addition was water, used as it still is, to moderate the alcohol in wine made from overripe grapes, but also because questionable water added to even sour wine made the water safer to drink. Tree resin was the earliest preservative used. The Greeks today still add pine resin to Retsina, their traditional wine. In the 19th century, Pasteur and others advanced understanding of the development of the vinegar bacteria and the inhibitory effect of sulfur dioxide. Instead of having to be drunk young, wines could now age, and fine wines could improve in glass bottles sealed by natural cork stoppers. In cooler climates, sugar became the addition of choice to fermenting juice to give fuller texture to a wine from less-ripe grapes when it fermented dry. In finer wines, it was used sparingly so as not to interfere with the natural taste. Likewise, natural calcium carbonate from seashells or mined chalk became traditional as to what could be added to precipitate some of the natural acidity when lack of warmth in the growing season had left it excessively high. In warmer regions, the grapes could lose acidity, so natural tartaric acid from under ripe grapes would be added. From the 19th century to the present day, these were the typical additives in fine, as well as ordinary, wines.

After the repeal of Prohibition in 1933, UC Davis turned it’s attention to the chemistry of wine, and how lesser wines could be improved through chemical and other additions and by mechanical processes. California’s inheritance of 19th century European winemaking methods was being replaced by a growing emphasis on technology. By the late 1940s, traditional winemaking was rare in California. In Europe as well, only makers of fine wine adhered to the traditional approach. The list of innovations grew. There are now more than fifty additives approved worldwide. Two good examples are Ultra Purple, a 2000-to-1 concentrate of lesser-quality red wine grapes that gives more texture, body, and color to wines, and Velcorin, a chemical that kills everything in the wine in order to eliminate the dreaded Brettanomyces (Brett). Processing machines have been developed to increase alcohol, to lower alcohol, to eliminate vinegar, Brett, cork taint, smoke taint from forest fires, and even sugar from wines intended to be dry. They all work on the principle of forcing the wine through a membrane under very high pressure. The correction of deficiencies or excesses in wine has moved inexorably from gentle, non-invasive methods to additives and invasive mechanical processing.

Given that these techniques, now in general use, are not needed to make fine wine, Ridge has opted to include an ingredient list on its labels. Besides the sustainably-grown grapes and their natural yeasts and malolactic bacteria, we note everything added, even when (as in the case of fresh egg whites used to moderate tannins) no trace remains in the finished wine. On the limited space of a label, there is room for the few ingredients we use, but not the quantities of each. We provide those details in the wine’s background information, available on our website, or in printed form from the winery.

We believe that ingredient labeling should remain voluntary, and would oppose any regulations that would require it. For small producers, the costs of laboratory analysis to accurately list every element in each of their wines—which would differ with each vintage—could mean a serious hardship. It would also be difficult for large producers where each bottling of the same wine would differ as well. The space now providing background for the consumer would be replaced by a list of additives, but with no mention of invasive processing. It should be noted that all the many additives are approved as safe to consume, and that the industrial processing machinery is also approved; there is no danger to the public when a producer chooses to make use of them.

We refer to Ridge winemaking as pre-industrial, and hope to encourage other fine-wine producers to voluntarily entrust their customers with a list of their ingredients.

Paul Draper


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