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“Great Wine” by the Numbers?

by David on September 24, 2006

I was thinking about an interview I did with my friend Jeff Booth, of Pepi-Booth Consulting (they consult for Goosecross and have clients as far away as China!). It was for an upcoming episode on our podcast, Napa Valley Wine Radio, and one of the questions I asked him was if he thought the day would ever come when great wine could be made in a lab. He didn’t exactly answer my question; he just replied with “That would be a drag” and went on to talk about the joys of working with nature and how formulaic winemaking would take all the fun and surprise out of it.

I suspect he was probably sidestepping the issue because he didn’t want to get into talking about things like the techniques used by a company called Enologix – that’s fodder for a whole episode of its own! I read about them awhile back, and it’s pretty interesting stuff. They use software developed in-house to measure things far beyond the usual sugar, acid, pH and alcohol in a quest to match the profile of wines that get 100 point scores from Parker or the Wine Spectator. And tasting? How quaint. Why bother? It appears to be all about the numbers. The owner of Enologix, Leo McCloskey, says he’s identified about 100 chemical compounds that can affect our perception and uses them to compute a “quality index” for the wine. It kind of boils down to analyzing wines that have received the high scores for their chemical breakdown and then advising winemakers regarding when to pick, when to press, etc, based upon his analysis in order to create a wine of similar structure. He claims that winemakers can improve their scores by 5-6 points in one year by using his system. Evidently, he can even take a vineyard that’s naturally disposed to produce a restrained style and can time the pressing and blend in order to produce that unctuous, 99-point style that’s currently in vogue. His market is mainly high-end Cabs.

Who wouldn’t want 99 points? You can’t blame a businessman for trying to make a product that sells. As long as there’s been commercial winemaking there’s been that push and pull between the drive to bottle a unique artistic expression and keeping food on the table. But you’ve got to have a killer vineyard to even begin approaching these scores (I don’t think they’ve figured out a way to fake the fruit yet – stay tuned). It may be an antiquated concept, but would that vineyard make more interesting wine if the winemaker simply attuned himself to it by walking it frequently and making harvest decisions by tasting as well as testing? And used the same approach to winemaking? One of McCloskey’s clients referred to “babysitting the fermentation tank”. Well, conscientious winemakers should be doing that anyway.

And how does that producer feel if he’s made a wine of distinction that languishes on the shelf because it got an 87 from the Wine Spectator? Wine as art/wine as business. What a dilemma!

Critics of McCloskey and proponents of terroir say his methods erase the sense of place and the charming quirkiness that has been inherent to wine. The objection is that they offer us only one style: the highly extracted, so-called fruit-bombs and that we may as well make a box of Cheerios if we’re going to go by the numbers. I think McCloskey would probably say that he’s giving his clients and their customers what they want.

I just keep wondering if the industry and we, as consumers, are going through a phase. Last night I had a glass of Dolcetto with my pasta and it was 14% alcohol (no, it wasn’t a 2003). That can’t be the historic norm for Dolcetto. Sure, I enjoyed it, and it still had that nice little zing of acid you expect, but it’s kind of too bad when a producer in Piemonte feels he has to mimic the California style in order to survive. I’m waiting for the backlash when we all get tired of the huge reds just the way we got tired of fat, over-oaked, overwrought Chardonnays.

If we do, operations like McCloskey’s can simply adjust their parameters. Science marches on. And science has done a whole lot to improve wine over the years. But I think I agree with my buddy, Jeff. If I want a glass of white Burgundy, I want that unmistakable minerality, bright acidity and hint of soy you don’t find in most Napa Valley Chardonnays. If I’m in the mood for a glass of Napa Valley Cab, I want the ripe, luscious black fruit that isn’t (or wasn’t) so evident in a typical Bordeaux equivalent. It would truly be a drag if science and globalization blur the lines beyond recognition.

To read about a great man who was diametrically opposed to Enologix in his approach to winemaking, and still managed to make rich, satisfying wine that also reflects the local terroir, read about Henri Jayer, may he rest in peace.

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