The Real Dirt About Clean Wines

The woman at the end of my bar reminded me of Jessica Fletcher from Murder, She Wrote and those that know me know that I consider that a great compliment.

She was silver-haired, but I could tell she still had some sass to her. She was wearing a scarf that was pinned by a brooch and, I’m telling you there was just no way to describe the grandeur of it—this brooch was 100% that brooch, okay? It was massive, like a golden insect dominating her shoulder. A spider? A grasshopper? A locust? I dunno, but I was a little bit in love with her.

She arrived alone. I imagined she was a widow and had lost her husband on a safari or a jungle cruise but—no matter—they had adventured together for decades. She was using a pen that was just as ornate as her brooch to write what I assumed to be her next mystery novel in an adorable floral journal I promised to buy myself with my next paycheck. She was a gem. I also was guessing, based on her simple questions and timid demeanor, that she didn’t know a thing about wine.

So my first confession is that I “soft-spieled” her, deliberately dumbing down my descriptions of the wine and our wine-making process because I didn’t get a sense that she cared much about what kind of wood our barrels were made out of, or the difference in ocean air on one side of the hill’s vineyard versus the other. When I get a wine nerd in here, I can wax as poetic as the next somm, but I was feeling that she was more interested in keeping it basic.

In contrast, behind her walked in a trio who have never let a day stay basic their entire #blessed lives. Their leader was an angular blond with wide brimmed hat and white slacks just right. A bit too much make up. No one was ever going to tell her. We’re going to call her “Sham-eron Diaz” – which has become the code amongst the somms at my place for anyone who asks what I was worried she was going to ask the moment I saw her:

“I suppose it’s too much to ask that you serve Clean Wines here, isn’t it?”

Here we go again.

I maintained a perfect poker face and I bet the corners of my forced smile could have cut glass. Over the last few years, the term “Clean Wines” has become the scourge of every tasting room. It’s a fad pretending to be a movement, making people – actually, just women in their 30s – ask crazy dumb questions while thinking it makes them look like intelligent environmentalists and know-it-alls. From my side of the bar, it means you end up sounding like a nincompoop:

“Or at least a wine with no sulfites? Is that too much to ask?”

I let out a whimper. There was just no answer to that question that wasn’t going to sound just a tad bit catty, “That… doesn’t exist.”

Sham-eron tilted her head with max attitude, “I’m sorry?”

“It’s just… wine… all wine. Have sulfites in them.”

This (true!) fact brought a groan to her and her two cronies, a petite bestie in a sundress that I could tell made her think she looked younger than she was. It actually made her look like an American Girl doll… so I guess that was… working? Not in the way she wanted it too. Neither did the tight jeans of the man who was with him. He had probably spent over twenty minutes that morning working on the perfect amount of ankle to show between his pants and loafer, so it was a shame to see he had landed on such a pale and ill-advised result.

“We just want something low carb with no additives.”

They sounded like a commercial for Diet TAB or something. Sundress gave a mousey add-on as I poured them the first of what was starting to feel like it would be a long tasting: “Is this going to give me a hangover?”

I opened my mouth, wondering what to say to that. She went on: “Does this contain ‘Mega-Purple?’ Mega-Purple gives me headaches.” Girl, drinking too damn much for your fragile frame is what gives you headaches. I fumbled through an answer, but there was no way to negotiate around the catchwords and propaganda they had been learning about the “evils of the wine trade.”

Here’s another confession, because I can only bad mouth the Clean Wine trade for so long without coming clean about Cameron Diaz. Sure, she may be one of the figureheads of the fad, but I have to get this off my chest—no matter how much trouble she’s brought to my day-to-day pourings: I love Cameron Diaz.

I can remember seeing Charlie’s Angels for the first time and just idolizing her as every single thing I wanted to be. That scene where she pops her hips so perfect in Spiderman underwear? I confess to trying that dance over and over again in years since. I even tried to rock some underoos just like her (I score myself a solid B+). I had a deep suspicion that Sham-eron had tried the dance too. Maybe even the underoos. Her hair was styled in just the right way that it may have been a shot at Cameron’s look. Hell, I bet Sundress had tried the dance too… probably Dr. Pale Ankles too, who offered another low-intelligence shot at what caused hangovers.

“I hear it’s not the Mega-Purple at all. It’s all the sugar they pour in!”

I was treading water here. I didn’t know anything about Mega-Purples or how to get these three focused on the real about what I was pouring right in front of them.

Luckily, that day, to quote the song Cameron is dancing to in her Spidey panties, “Heaven must have been missing an angel.” One that came to my rescue in a form I least expected.

Listening to the hubbub, the kindly older woman I had soft-spieled clucked her tongue and murmured over, “Pouring sugar in? That’s a myth.”

Her chiming in chilled the entire room. Sham-eron gave her some wicked side-eye but my knight in Jessica Fletcher armor just went on, “I can promise you that there has definitely been no sugar added to what you’re sipping there. Or anywhere in the region. Though I once had a bottle in Burgundy where they added it for the Chaptalization process.”

She could see my face screw up at the big word as much as theirs did, so she clued us all in, “That’s where they add sugar to the fermenting grapes to up the alcohol.” At this, Sham-eron slapped her table, “That’s exactly what we’re talking about! Burgundy is close, right? Is that near Palo Alto?”

J-Fletch scoffed, “Burgundy, my dear thing, is in France.”

Sham didn’t let the facts deter her, “Well, wherever it it, I fully believe such a tragedy should be illegal!”

With a knowing smile I was beginning to absolutely adore, J-Fletch gave a polite little chirp, then let her know, “My dear girl. It is illegal. So are the color dyes you mentioned earlier. In my humble opinion, something else that should be illegal are some of the misconceptions you’re being fed by the websites of celebrities.”

Sham-eron’s eyes crinkled in a way I’m sure she’d hate to see in a mirror (girl, them crow’s feet are showing!). Her response was short and thoroughly disarmed, “I’m sorry. What?”

Jessica sighed as she labored through the facts, “All these sugars and color dyes you’re going on about. It’s all absolutely illegal here in California, even if winemakers DID want to do it, which they don’t. I doubt it’s a crime committed anywhere in the valley and I guarantee if the vintners here do it? They certainly wouldn’t be telling our lovely somm, here. She could get them to put away and make so much money off the tip-off that she could buy this place herself.”

I gave a playful shrug at this: not a bad idea. J-Fletch winked, “Trust me, if you see them pouring sugar into anything, just let me know.”

Her words seemed to underline the mystery of her identity far too much for Sham-eron, who was growing righteously miffed at having her Clean Wine Talking Points dismissed at every turn, “Who are you to know what all these rich men do up in their wine barrel towers. No offense, Gareth.”

Her self-hating male friend chimed in, “None taken, I hate men too. Preach, girl.” Urged on by one of her besties, Sham-eron was feeling her oats, “Trust me. They do it. They ALL do it around here.”

Jessica went ahead and ended that noise, “Well. I don’t. And I own three of the largest wineries in the area.”

That wasn’t just a shock to Sham-eron. It was a cannonball shot over my bow as well: wait, Jessica Fletcher is a what? She then made it a point to list the three wineries like she was naming off her cats. Only these cats were three of the most respected wineries in the country. No way I’m gonna name ‘em here but, if you’re reading this, you’ve been to one of them and you can’t afford one of the others (but you’re dying to).

Sham-eron and my eyes lit up together – the first time we ever vibed together over something. My surprise was mixed with a sudden flood of shame and worry – you mean I was just soft-spieling to one of the most powerful winemakers in the country? Jessica gave me a comforting smile, then a wink, “Calm yourself, m’dear. You’ve been doing fine. Though your description of that second Cab could use a little zing.” (Valid.)

The looks she was now getting from The Clean Wine Three, however, pulsed with a different energy – a greedy one. Now that they knew they had a Queen Bee of wine in their midst, their postures all got a little more pronounced. Sham-eron was going to see what she could angle out of the lucky meet, and named one of Jessica’s wineries, “We’ve always wanted to taste there, and I’m looking for just the right place to host business retreats.” Ooh-la-la. “Business Retreats.” Now she was trying to look all professional and probably didn’t fully realize she was talking to a millionaire.

A millionaire full of grace, however. J-Fletch stood up, clicked her beautiful pen shut and regarded her. For a moment I thought she was going to bring the hammer, but instead she extended an invite, “I tell you want, I’ll pour for you myself if you come by this afternoon… but on three conditions.” I smiled as I realized what was coming, “You never bother this somm, or myself, with any of this Clean Wine nonsense again. I do my best never to cast shade upon a fellow winery – in fact I love to visit them incognito as I was doing here today. The Clean Wine industry, however, is built upon trying to besmirch the way that I do things and I find that personally offensive. Are we agreed?”

Sham-eron and her cohorts nodded enthusiastically, visions of a high end tasting they could brag about to their friends pouring through their mind. It was adorable to see how the lust for “Clean” just melted away when something new and shiny was presented to them. I was particularly fond of J-Fletch’s last demand, “And, third thing? I want you to tip this young lady very well. You’ve been absolutely frightful to her.”

Tip me well they did (but not even a quarter of what my beloved Jessica Fletcher left me… or maybe I should call her “Vineyard, She Wrote?”). Either way, it was a blissful afternoon of victory for the cause of classic winemaking. I’d give the tip right back just for the chance to watch it happen every time a new Sham-eron came in here. Which will probably happen this weekend.

Who knows? Maybe telling my tale will help some of your readers to educate themselves and keep from becoming a Sham-eron themselves. Wise up, wine-lovers! Don’t let “Clean Wine-oholism” happen to you!

For Kevin, being a writer has always required a great deal of wine. He never dreamed he’d be able to combine his love for the two. His screenwriting includes works for Paramount, MTV, Warner Brothers, 20th Century Fox, Bad Robot, and his role as Executive Story Editor on “Blood & Treasure,” an action adventure show on CBS and Amazon. Before that, his thirst for sketch comedy led to pieces for The Onion and National Lampoon – as well as the stages of UCB, HBO Workspace, Comedy Central Stage and festivals in San Francisco, NYC, Vancouver and beyond. He’s a write-at-home dad always ready for a winery road trip… especially a dog-friendly one.