Sour Grapes

At Tony's Wine Warehouse, there's a sucker born every minute

Tony's sales pitches are remarkably similar to classroom lore. "I'll give you a quick explanation about...the barrels," the salesman said, giving the mushroom-campfire yarn that explains the differences between wines made from French and American oak barrels.

As he poured a sample of Poppy Hill Cabernet Sauvignon from California, a man slipped from behind the counter and left the store. The salesman paused and smiled. "Now that he's gone, I can do something about the prices," he said. He pulled out a sheet. "Now that he's gone, this is what I can show you. The normal prices are these." He pointed to a column on the left. "I can do it for those prices." He pointed to a column of much lower prices on the right. "But I couldn't...do it until he was gone, because he's the owner...So I can do you better prices on things. So I was doing it kind of half-heartedly with you."

As we assembled our case, mostly from the wine class tasting list, he stopped to retrieve a special wine: A 2000 Godwin Alexander Valley Merlot. He billed the Godwin as a baby Opus One, the ultra-premium Bordeaux-style wine created via a joint venture between Robert Mondavi of the Robert Mondavi Winery and Baron Philippe de Rothschild of Châteaux Mouton-Rothschild. "[Opus One is] a kind of California version of a Merlot, and this I've been told is very, very similar to it," the salesman said. Yet Opus One, which retails for $165 per bottle for the 2002 vintage, is primarily Cabernet Sauvignon--from 80 to 97 percent, depending on the vintage--with just a splash of Merlot. "The reason why it's that expensive is because it's always written up in wine magazines," the salesman said. "And everyone believes what a wine writer says...I don't read wine magazines...Stuff like this, Godwin, that's not written up in wine magazines...it doesn't need to be written up in wine magazines." He cut us a deal: He slashed the price on the Godwin from $89 to $59 (it has a suggested retail price of $24.99, though some Internet sources list it as high as $28).

Mass appeal: "People like our message," says Tony's owner Michel Monzain. "The wine snobs don't like our message."
Mass appeal: "People like our message," says Tony's owner Michel Monzain. "The wine snobs don't like our message."
Chemical slander? Wine instructors at Tony's insist large wineries, especially U.S. producers, illegally use substances such as glycol and penicillin in their mass-produced wines. Sources in the California wine industry say such charges are false, even libelous to large California producers.
Chemical slander? Wine instructors at Tony's insist large wineries, especially U.S. producers, illegally use substances such as glycol and penicillin in their mass-produced wines. Sources in the California wine industry say such charges are false, even libelous to large California producers.

We took the Godwin and a rosé from Provence after a strong recommendation from our salesman. To sweeten the purchase, he threw in a couple of free bottles: a 2004 Salmon Creek White Zinfandel and a 1995 Reine Pédauque white Côtes du Rhône. The wines from our second buy were all white, including a 1997 Byington Santa Cruz Mountains California Chardonnay (suggested retail $22, Tony's price $59.95), a 1996 Chehalem Reserve Oregon Pinot Gris (suggested retail $19, Tony's price $34.95) and a 2001 Valley of the Moon California Pinot Blanc (suggested retail $15, Tony's Price $39.95).

"From a distributor's standpoint, some of the exclusives [Tony's] has are really nice wines," says wine broker Susana Partida. "But they're outrageously overpriced and they're few and far between."


One of the most practical pieces of information dispensed at Tony's wine classes is a surefire strategy for avoiding hangovers. It is this: Drink only wine void of chemicals or sugar. Instructor James Winkler holds up a bottle of sweet German Riesling to illustrate.

"Here are the facts," he says emphatically. "There's no sugar in this bottle. There's no chemicals in this bottle. There's no...basically no calories in it...And hear me when I say this, y'all, there's no hangover in that bottle. Nothing in that bottle will get you sick, unless you're silly enough to drink two of them by yourself and then you deserve it: It's called alcohol poisoning. You will not get a hangover on this wine." Alcohol, he says, is not the cause of hangovers; it's the extra things producers, specifically large American producers, blend into their wines.

Of course this is rubbish. Sweet German Rieslings are loaded with residual sugar. And sugar doesn't cause hangovers. "The most common factor in hangovers is dehydration--too much ethanol and not enough water," says Dr. Roger B. Boulton, a chemical engineer in the department of viticulture and enology at the University of California, Davis. "If sugar was the issue, then most of the people in the United States would have hangovers almost every day, because of the sugar intake."

This highlights a recurring Tony's theme: Wines sold at Tony's are potentially safer because they contain no chemicals or additives and therefore will not cause headaches, allergic reactions or hangovers--unless you poison yourself with alcohol. And the list of chemicals Tony's claims large wine producers blend into their wines is alarming.

"Why do you people get headaches?" asks instructor Jean Bernard during a Tony's wine tasting class. "I tell you, it's the glycol, the penicillin, the asbestos filtration, the coloring, the flavoring and the added sulfites. That's your box and jug wine." Bernard explains that Europeans do not put chemicals into their wines, and that all Tony's wines are chemical-free. "We do not carry wines that have chemicals in them," he insists.

Winkler goes even further: "America is the only country in the world that will put a chemical, or will try to put a chemical, in a bottle of wine."

The truth is, virtually all wine producers across the globe utilize at least some chemicals in the wine production process, including sulfites to sterilize the wine, tartaric acid (derived from grapes) to correct acid deficiencies, bentonite (clay) and egg whites to precipitate out proteins, defoaming agents, compounds to remove trace metals, yeast nutrients to assist in fermentation and enzymes to clarify and stabilize wines and remove proteins. The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), the agency that regulates the alcohol industry, publishes a list of materials authorized for the treatment of wine and juice.

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