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08.08.2005

Number By Half (Wines You Can Count On)

My friend David Darlington's name appeared in the byline of an article, published in yesterday's (August 7, 2005) New York Times magazine, about making wines that get high scores from prominent critics. The piece explores the work of a fellow named Leo McCloskey, who runs a company that works with wineries to help them figure out ways to increase their chances of being favorably reviewed in the pages of (among other places) Robert M. Parker's The Wine Advocate, and of The Wine Spectator.

McCloskey is, apparently, an accomplished chemist, who has devised a way to measure, very precisely, the components in wines that are responsible for it's organoleptic qualities: taste, intensity, weight, texture, astringency, mouthfeel, and so forth. Using that information, he's indexed the measurements of a very large number of the wines that have received high scores from the above-named wine critics, and established what he claims is a reliable set of parameters that enable the winery clients for whom he consults to consistently reproduce the sets of characteristics that ring the critics chimes. (David's a professional writer, and his account is far more succinct and entertaining than any attempt I might make, so if you want to know more of the details, you should go to the source.)

I have to say, right up front, I think this approach to winemaking is appalling. Whether it works for the wineries in question or not, it's not about making better wine; it's about selling more wine. (If you think they're the same, perhaps a glass of Blue Nun tonight?) But then, I'm every bit as quick to admit that Leo's clients are probably making way more money than I am. (Probably way more than David, too.) The subject, of course, calls forth some response.

I'm reminded, perversely enough, of a joke:

Rip Van Winkle wakes up from his long slumber to discover that the way in which his neighbors communicate has changed somewhat. One of the changes is that, when they tell jokes, they don't really tell them, they only say a number that corresponds to a particular joke. (Stop me if you've already heard this) It's, of course, highly frustrating for old RVW to be the only one who doesn't understand the source of the hysterical laughter coming from all the folks around him, but to save himself from appearing the fool, he politely laughs along with everyone else.

Eventually he corners one fellow, and by agreeing to provide him with a good meal, and several liters of wine, persuades him to tell the joke that corresponds to each number, so that he can participate in the social life of his community in an equal way. Not surprisingly, he has to repeat this exercise numerous times, until he can remember all the jokes. Eventually, the goal is reached, and he looks forward eagerly to sharing his newfound savoir-faire.

So, one evening, at the well, where a group is gathered, as Rip approaches he hears a voice call out "37!" Ripples of laughter move through the ranks. Someone else shouts "21!" and the adults all double over gleefully (most of the kids are too young to understand the humor of this particular specimen). After several more numbers generate several more uproarious waves of hilarity, there is a contented silence. Suddenly, Van W. pipes up: "TWELVE!" Bewildered glances are exchanged, sighs of dismissal, even disgust. Then, an abyss of silence. Stunned, Rip looks to his tutor, who whispers, simply, "You told it wrong."

Wine, lest it be forgotten, is made from grapes. Grapes, planted, and grown properly in a site chosen for it's suitability for top-quality wine production (and the variety planted, of course, must be suited to that site) will naturally provide all the components that account for the characteristics of aroma and flavor that please us in good wine. There will be variability from season to season, and of course, the vines will give better, more consistent wines as they become older. If the economics of the market niche and the bottom line dictate that we can't trust the land, the sun, the weather, our own palates, and our own good sense, but instead have to let money do all the talking and thinking for us, then there is no point in making wine, and there is no wine to make. What comes from the approach espoused by McCloskey is more appropriately thought of as a "wine-beverage." And some fine part of the human soul dies.

I called David this morning to congratulate him on the publication of the article. We chatted for awhile, and, before we said good-bye, he asked if I knew where he could find a Pinot Grigio we'd enjoyed a few months ago. I can imagine, after writing an article about the kinds of wines under consideration, a fresh little white wine made the old-fashioned way might taste pretty good.


Steve Edmunds of Edmunds St. John Winery is a regular contributor to Vinography.

Comments (18)

Jack wrote:
08.08.05 at 10:48 PM

"I think this approach to winemaking is appalling." Steve, that's refreshing to hear!

Reading that article on Sunday, it made me think that here's another reason that more and more California wines are tasting - how should I put it? Less interesting. Pumping of the alcohol, concentration and ripeness of fruit doesn't seem to be winning me over.

I think much of the wine industry is afflicted with what's sadly killing the computer/video gaming industry; sequel mania. (Hollywood has this problem to a lesser degree.) Is the goal now to make all wine taste the same (or really liked by just 1-3 super critics)? Will the medium and large US producers become like the big houses in Champagne?

It seems to me that few winemakers are making the wine they want to make; rather they're trying to make what they think the public wants and get the big hedonistic fruitbomb score.

taj wrote:
08.09.05 at 6:10 AM

In my senior year of high school, we took a field trip to the World Trade Center in Dallas to visit the Fashion Mart and learn the path from designer to retail. I'll never forget the woman who was guiding us. A wholesaler who volunteered to do the tour, she was brutally honest with us about what went on. The most haunting thing she said was the first comment before we started the tour: "The clothes you'll be seeing here today are the ones you'll be dying to own next year." It seemed innocuous enough, but the point was, fashions and trends were in the hands of marketers, designers, and businessmen, whose money is made telling the public what they want.

Seems to me the same principle is true these days with wine. Marketers have lately been able to find the magic bullets with labels (friendly critters sell!), it seems only logical (and equally depressing) that designing the wine itself was next.

God Bless Bruno Giacosa,
Taj

Doug wrote:
08.09.05 at 6:50 AM

Winemakers in title only? The process (or art, as we like to think of it) from pruning to bottling is complex enough, without forcing an outcome that year-to-year has no distinction.

J. Peterson nails it ''Part of the charm and beauty of wine is its idiosyncrasy, but when everybody tries to hit the same sweet spot, it's like making soda pop.''

Of course, this assumes a market for wines that maybe dissimilar year-to-year (given weather, yields, improvements, or mistakes) and that a growing base of consumers are as interested in how one vineyard, one winemaker, or one designated product evolves or dissolves over time. To encourage that following, I look to the winery to provide me with enough information to keep my attention.

HugeJ wrote:
08.09.05 at 9:20 AM

Good comments, Alder. The article had the same chilling effect on me.

You know what it reminds me of? Wasn't there a Star Trek episode where the computer recreated a glass of Bordeaux from a classic vintage? Maybe that's where we're headed....

/huge

Mithrandir wrote:
08.09.05 at 10:00 AM

I think the crime is in the intent, and not the methodology. The intent is to make "high-point" wine, which is rather distressing.

The methodology, however, is to truly understand the chemistry of a particular style of wine, in an effort to achieve it reliably. This methodology could be applied with as much success to other styles of wine as to "Style 4".

The distinction that I like to make between art and craft is that of Vision vs. Execution. An artist has Vision. A craftsman has the skill to Execute vision. In practice, making art is always a little of both.

I see Enologix's techniques as an aid to craft, which has the effect of enabling the artist to execute his vision more readily. Except that (at present) they only support one vision, and they won't share their analysis techniques.

Mike Fogarty wrote:
08.09.05 at 11:14 AM

If I may parse your statements a little it will help illustrate my confusion with your ideas. You state that McCloskey is trying to find “…ways to increase their (wineries’ wine) chances of being favorably reviewed….”. Then you state that “…it's not about making better wine; it’s about selling more wine.” Rereading the rest of your article, I see no case leading from one to the other. Now, if you are implying that the wine critics and testers are reading the chemists data as the basis of rating wine instead of tasting it to rate it, I find that hard to believe. It seems to me that the chemist is quantifying some intangibles or at least subjective items that a winery can use to improve the wine. Then the critics and we tasters will still make up our own minds. It might free up some wine makers from rudimentary concerns so they can concentrate on tangible factors for truly improving their wine. I don’t think so, but perhaps it will make some wine tasters hired by wineries not fully employed; that seems to be the worst of it. The best is that some wines improve as determined by wine drinkers. It is hard to believe that this chemist can have any negative effect; if some sell some more wine because it tastes better and gets better reviews, who can think ill of that.

Steve Edmunds wrote:
08.09.05 at 11:44 AM

Mike:
Mithrandir (the post just before yours, I believe) said it succintly, I think: the crime is in the motive, not the methodology. Making money is fine, selling more wine is fine. but there's something about deciding that you're going to try to duplicate something that's succeeded in eliciting a high score, because that high score will make your product sell faster at a higher price, that is the equivalent to me, of saying "I don't need to even think about what good is, I just need to do what works." If you think that makes better wine, I have no problem with that, but it certainly doesn't mean I have to think the same thing.
My post was quite purposely very short because that was my only point. I agree with everyone that Enologix has some evaluative tools to offer that are, no doubt, useful. And I'd love it if my wines sold faster at a higher price.

HugeJ wrote:
08.09.05 at 1:10 PM

Mike Fogarty:

Are you seriously implying that higher scores don't lead to better sales (or moreso - higher bottle prices) or are you pointing out that Steve didn't connect the dots for you there (tsk tsk)? If you follow the wine business at all you know that goes without saying that scores drive sales. Sad, but true.

/huge

Doug McDaniel wrote:
08.09.05 at 1:58 PM

Taking out the "human" element is appalling, indeed. On the other hand, I really like big, hedonistic fruit bombs.

Ben wrote:
08.09.05 at 10:14 PM

I think it makes perfect sense to design wines that will score well with Robert Parker. After all, there are plenty of people who depend on him to tell them which wines they like and which they think is crap. Some people just don't have the time to experience their wine, so they just refer to the scores and react accordingly. Talk about the dream consumer.

Luckily there are producers who like to think for themselves. Sure the majority of wine may fall into a certain stylistic category, but that's why it's a majority. We just have to remember the minority is out there, waiting to be discovered. And that's what wine geeks are for.

When I'm tempted by those wines designed for Parker, I just have to tell myself: They were designed to be tasted, they cost too much to do much more than taste, and they're fun to try at tastings. The wine we want to drink we'll just have to find on our own.

Mithrandir wrote:
08.09.05 at 10:46 PM

Wouldn't it be nice to be Robert Parker and have an entire wine industry segment making wine just for you? That sounds kind of nice to me...

maggie wrote:
08.11.05 at 2:10 PM

OK, I think we can all safely say that we object to wine being manufactured as opposed to made. Some of these posts imply that we're all sore losers, in a way, that our style of wine is not preferred. But I hate the Parkerization of wine the way I hate the McDonaldization of culture. It's two similar symptoms of the same disease to me. Parkerized wines are like BC Hothouse tomatoes. At the end of the day...vines that get the chemistry just don't taste as good as vines that get the love.
The best way to combat this is to promote Farmers Markets, write about small production wines and smaller focused importers, get people to taste the difference.
And, yes, we all shoulder a bit of the blame. I know many people who bitch and moan, but there's Spewlator right next to the checkout in their shop. Their shop has a subscription to Advocate. That's bullshit. We need to start having more confidence in our tastes and quite bitching about Parker's.

Steve Edmunds wrote:
08.11.05 at 3:18 PM

Bravo! Well, said, Maggie.

08.12.05 at 6:20 PM

Forum members,

I am enjoying all the discussion.

My company’s story August 7, 2005) New York Times magazine, is revealing that modern methods are used to make California wine. There has been a culture of the cover-up with consumers, both in Europe and the New World, largely because the critics and the media punish winemakers who have revealed their use of modern methods.

We decided to be perfectly honest with David Darlington. We took the risk, and knew that any science story about wine and numbers would be slammed by those who want to believe that all American winemakers we love are making wine using traditional methods in a long term struggle to find the Holy Grail of European farm winemaking here in California.

I am first a winemakers, have no chemistry degree, and am absolutely passionate about helping farm winemakers protect traditional style, quality, aging potential and terroir in their long term efforts to build a fine wine business.

I would like to reach out to the forum members to consider the truth. My sense is that winemakers have been spinning the same Horatio Alger story, “American lads doing good things that are admired by all Americans.” The wine media tells this story over and over again to consumers. The truth be told, they are not telling consumers that modern methods are ubiquitous in so far as the benchmarks by which we all judge wines are made with one or more modern methods.

What's really new about the Times story is that winemakers are openly talking in the national forum, in front of the country, about very critics who have controlled their business destinies. Now that is something that cannot happen in the wine press. That is new.

Regards,

Leo McCloskey

Alder wrote:
08.12.05 at 6:29 PM

Leo,

Thanks very much! I was hoping you were still a reader and would eventually comment on the discussion. It is a good one, and worth having.

Everett Plante wrote:
08.15.05 at 3:36 AM

I would like to think that people who have been drinking wine for years would by now know what they like in wines. Which leaves the wine drinkers who are just starting out and I have one bit of advice to give them, "Don't be little soldiers of the Robert Parker Army.

Thanks,
Everett

08.17.05 at 7:20 AM

Dear Forum members, what a week to be on vacation. I have just arrived home to my computer and had a moment to digest the response to the David Darlington article: The Chemistry of a 90-point wine. As one of the subjects of the article I feel a need to clarify several things that have been misaddressed in both the article and in this thread.

First of all, I think that the homogenization of wine is a sad state of affairs. Whether or not they are micro or macro producers, anointed by Robert Parker, Jim Laube or otherwise wine in all its marvelous facets has its place without regard to its score.

The idea that money and marketing is the driving force for anyone who utilizes ENOLOGIX is so provincial it makes my head spin. The fear among many established winemakers is that the real story of wine-quality is about to break into the public eye. To date, the consumer has accepted idiosyncratic wines as a sign of creativity when in fact it was typically a sign of autodidactic winemakers who were trying to figure out their way in the dark. A great wine that took many years of judicious care in the vineyard and in the winery to create cannot be replicated with a few analyses. There is no substitute for careful selection of site, rootstock, scion and exposition. Soul, location, selection and farming cannot be replaced. Considered winegrowing is not dictated solely by the numeric relationship of tannin and complex anthocyanin et al.

The ENOLOGIX analyses shine a light into the murky and dark parts of winegrowing. Which are optimal phenolic development, physiological maturity and finally extraction. The method decompresses fermentation and opens the process to choice. The metrics allow you to confirm your intuition or deny it depending on what your vineyards have to offer. By quantifying your intuitive and historic evaluation of a vineyard you might be able to improve your winegrowing process. Fundamentally a skilled winegrower can interpret the data, merge it with experience and formulate a plan of attack for a tailored approach in the vineyard and in fermentation, avoiding problems of imbalance down the line. ENOLGIX is a predictive tool for quality management that simply enhances winegrowing.

ENOLOGIX is no substitute for quality. The service that Leo McCloskey provides is merely a tool. Again, ENOLOGIX is no substitute for quality; if your vineyard is bereft of the elements that create charming, elegant and complex wine you are SOL. ENOLOGIX is not a substitute for your palate. Nor will ENOLOGIX replace farmstead winegrowing. The service offers you the ability to predict quality and thus manage the critics rather than the other way around. Seems like a pretty good tool to me. And in my experience it works.

Employing ENOLOGIX and their technology allows you to adapt your fermentations to illuminate the best qualities that are present. ENOLOGIX is a counterintuitive tool that steers one away from formulaic practices. By allowing you to see the potential of your vineyards in a quantifiable means, permitting you to choose the path you would like to pursue. You can choose to make hard green and uncharming wines or you can go down the path to Robert Parkers house (Lot, be careful not look back when you leave) or you can exercise your intuitive ability and artistic touch and choose to make something that is far finer, expressing the absolute essence of a vineyard you have built from the ground up and cared for with sweat from your brow and the huge risk involved and all of the critical things that have been overlooked here.

08.18.05 at 2:54 PM

Sam,

Compliments all around to everyone, what I enjoy is all the discussion of fine wine the New York Times story engendered. Also, there are more stories coming, I want to ask forum members to read the London Times, my sense is that there will be a story this or the following Saturday.

Regards to the forum, and congratulations to Sam Spencer on your recent sales successes.

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