The Science Behind Your Cheap Wine

Cheap wine

To develop the next big mass-market wine, winemakers first hone flavor using focus groups, then add approved flavoring and coloring additives to make the drink match up with what consumers want. (Ed Rooney / Alamy)

We live in a golden age of wine, thanks in part to thirsty millennials and Americans seemingly intent on out-drinking the French. Yet for all its popularity, the sommelier’s world is largely a mysterious one. Bottles on grocery store shelves come adorned with whimsical images and proudly proclaim their region of origin, but rarely list ingredients other than grapes. Meanwhile, while ordering wine at a restaurant can often mean pretending to understand terms like “mouthfeel,” “legs” or “bouquet.”

“I liked wine the same way I liked Tibetan hand puppetry or theoretical particle physics,” writes journalist Bianca Bosker in the introduction to her new book Cork Dork, “which is to say I had no idea what was going on but was content to smile and nod.”

Curious about what exactly happened in this shrouded world, Bosker took off a year from writing to train to become a sommelier, and talk her way into wine production facilities across the country. In the end, Bosker learned that most wine is nowhere near as “natural” as many people think—and that scientific advances have helped make cheap wine nearly as good as the expensive stuff.

“There’s an incredible amount we don’t understand about what makes wine—this thing that shakes some people to the core,” Bosker says. In particular, most people don’t realize how much chemistry goes into making a product that is supposedly just grapes and yeast, she says. Part of the reason is that, unlike food and medicines, alcoholic beverages in the U.S. aren’t covered by the Food and Drug Administration. That means winemakers aren’t required to disclose exactly what is in each bottle; all they have to reveal is the alcohol content and whether the wine has sulfites or certain food coloring additives.


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