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.