Winery Water Bandits


Took your course at UCD, discovered then that we overlapped at college.  

I am a Cab grower for a high end Napa winery, 10 years.  We are re-negotiating price, and I am advocating a higher price because they want very ripe fruit, 28-9 Brix.  Obviously this reduces my yield.  Are they getting more wine by adding water to the must, or is there another way to ferment dry at high Brix?




Dear Fred,

As you suspected, you are being robbed.  Gives new meaning to the term “stick-up.”

There are a lot of reasons why winemakers do this.  Many are paranoid about vegetal characters from pyrazines (we call it “pyranoia”), and other just want highly impactful and fruity (raisiny) aromas.  These “clown wines” age very poorly, and I consider them a betrayal of consumer trust, but they are very popular today with the ignorant rich, especially the affluent Chinese, who are very new to this game but surely will wise up soon.  I know $200/bottle producers who pick at 30 brix and then add sugar and high proof alcohol.  It’s a disgrace.  Hopefully the trend will pass.

In the pursuit of density, many winemakers believe their wines will be more concentrated at higher brix.  That seems to make sense if you don’t know how colloid chemistry and volatility work.  The elements critical to Cabernet quality, the color and tannin, are not soluble in solution and can only be extracted into copigmentation colloids – little balls of apolar goodge which are held together and stabilized by the driving force of water, i.e. the dielectric constant.  The higher the alcohol, the lower this driving force, and at 20% alcohol, there are no colloids at all.

The higher alcohol also suppresses aromas, partly because the esters and other aromatics in wine are hydrophobic but alcohol-soluble, thus increased in volatility by low alcohol solutions and decreased as the alcohol rises, and also because the trigeminal nerve irritation of the alcohol solvent masks aromas generally. 

So in fact, lower alcohol wines have more extraction, more stable structure, greater longevity and fruitier aromas.  But some consumers just want a wallop of alcohol, some nice raisins and maybe some sugar.

Whatever. But they shouldn’t be robbing you in the process.  You should negotiate based on an agreed brix such as 24.5 (that’s still 15% alcohol) and make the winery pay a sugar bonus based on the shrinkage.  Being a work-crazed techie, you recognize that brix is a weight percentage, not volume, so build in your adjustments accordingly. 

Here is a density table you can use. In shrinking from 24.5 to 29 brix, you should be compensated a bonus of 16.9% on the tons you delivered. The winery, if they diluted to 14.5, gained 40.5 gallons, so they ended up with 210.5 gallons wine instead of 170 GPT.

This doesn’t factor in the losses from unharvestable raisins and other losses such as bird damage, but it’s something. This calculation is for hand-picked fruit.  The loss for machine picked is 8% higher because of destemming.  If you like, I could help you complete a table to insert in your contract.

Turrentine Wine Brokerage likes to talk about the Manic/Depressive Wheel of Fortune that’s supposed to turn every eight years or so.  Unfortunately, the Growers were supposed to be on top starting in 2007, just when the recession hit and everybody started trimming inventory.  As a result, wineries have gotten used to screwing growers through the last 15 years.

But finally your turn has come.  Napa Cabernet is hot as a pistol.  You can pretty much name your price and terms.  Use this opportunity wisely.  Were I you, I would start by trying to get into a relationship that has long-term sanity and win-win prospects with some winery you like and trust.

If you want to stick with your current client, you are going to have to man-up.  Try this meditation.  Find a mirror to stand in front of, pretend you’re looking at your winery partner, and spend fifteen or twenty minutes telling them to go bugger themselves.  Then you can tone it down when you actually talk to them, but still have some fire in the belly.

Good luck!