Tuesday, April 18, 2006

The Recipe for Great Winemaking
The Sycophant and the Donkey


My weekend reading included an interesting article in the NY Times entitled ‘The Chemistry of a 90+ Wine.’ Yes I know. I made a promise to a number of you that I would get back to the wine reviews and quirky dinners and I will, er, um, soon. But this is important.

The article’s subject is a Mr. McCloskey who has apparently conceived of a new way of measuring wine quality. He uses spectrometers and chromatographs to separate and measure particular chemical compounds in a vintner’s juice. The resulting ‘quality index,’ the ratio of phenols, terpenes and other secondary’ chemicals to one another, are then compared to a ‘benchmark’ wine, a mythical 100 point wine which comes from a similar analysis of previously high scoring wines (from the usual culprits).

The premise is simple. ‘The Score’ is everything, and by modeling one’s wine after those which have previously received 90 points, it follows that one should receive a similar benediction, and thus sales. In fact, McCloskey’s company Enologix promises it’s clients that it’s ‘metrics’ will assist winemakers in . . . boosting average national critics' scores.''

Uggh.

Now there is nothing wrong with using whatever system one wants to use to analyze wine, and in fact I am intrigued by any tool which aims to explain why we like what we do. Knowledge is good. The problem here is that McCloskey is purporting some sort of ‘holy grail’ of quality which is based on what a small group of individuals have deemed to be quality. Follow? If you so fervently believe that you know what the ultimate good is, you're moving into dangerous territory.

McCloskey himself has claimed, "If you ask what is wine quality?..."people say it's relative, it's a matter of taste. But the fact is, it's not." It would seem that McCloskey believes it is a matter of a few tastes, that being those of Parker, Laube, His and all those critics who tend towards the jammy, oak-infused New World style. Suffice to say that Enologics has quite a roster of clients.

Okay. Fuck that. So what?

I have written a number of times about the potential pitfalls that arise from winemakers who rely too heavily on additives and manipulations to make their wines as opposed to technique and terroir. I won’t rehash it here. McCloskey’s concept in of itself is interesting, its the possible applications that make me squirm ...ie. guns don’t kill people, people kill people.

Already many wine buyers seem unable to make a purchase that does not have the benediction of one of the big critics. It is lamentable for any number of good reasons, but this type of ‘sycophantry’ is even worse because it relates to the winemaker’s integrity. I have my problems with the ‘ego-centric’ new world winemaker attitude, whereby nature seems to be tolerated just as long as it doesn’t get in the way of what he or she’s preconceived notion of what their wine ought to be. But I can understand it, and even if I believe that the use of all these interventions removes a wine from the subtle influences of it’s terroir, if they are used to create a unique wine which reflects the personality of the winemaker then I can at least respect it. It comes from them.

Using The Enologic system for the purpose of pleasing critics completely eliminates the winemaker’s personality from the process, and instead panders to a small group of tastes and the ‘metrics’ of a man who claims to have written the recipe book on how to make a bestseller. This type of winemaker is as soft as the Pillsbury doughboy, as real as Hasselhoff.

Wine should be the product of the interaction between the winemaker and nature, not the interaction between the two to make a wine the Parker-Laube tandem will like. This is soul-less pandering, insulting to us wine consumers and most importantly, it 'splooges' a couple more drops of oil on that slippery slope towards the uniformity of taste. We are being powned like some cheap whore. You the consumer are looked upon as a second class drinking citizen, you ass.

If there was ever a reason to trumpet the democratization of wine criticism then this is it.

15 comments:

beau said...

I'm sorry, what were you saying? I was distracted by Mr. Hasselhof...

Oh yes. I think your point about 'democratization of wine criticism' is huge. At the end of the day, most winemakers (or their corporate overlords) want to make money on their wine. God bless 'em - they should make some cash. However, with only a few well-known arbiters of wine taste (particularly in the U.S.), winemakers are bound to shoot for the palates of Parker & Laube.

I'm still trying to figure out why there are only a handful of major wine critics. It doesn't seem to be that way in other drink/food industries...For example, is there a Parker for Beer? For Cheese? I don't think so.

So I guess it behooves us more delicate wine loving types to try and figure out how we can make inroads with the casual wine drinker, or those who think wine begins and ends with 89 points and above...

caveman said...

The Hasselhof is hairier than I thought, but very cute.

You are the alternative (at least one of them)my good fiend beau.

(and both guns and people kill people).
Bill

ann said...

actually, isn't michael jackson considere the parker of beer?

similarly, there's a system like this in the pop music world, where a record label can pay this dude a ton of money and he'll run all the songs on an album against an alogrithm and tell the label which song will be the most popular
i know a lot of labels use this service because sometimes the song that hews closest to the algorithm isn't in fact the most obvious one
does this make pop music better? worse?
does it matter? because, with the proliferation of myspace and the resurgance of indie bands and labels, its still possible to find music that isn't factory generated crap
i can't believe i'm saying this, but i don't think this parker-rithm will kill wine, as long as there's people like us out there that prefer slow wine to yellow tail

beau said...

Man! That Michael Jackson sure has a lot of talent :)

Ann - I think you make a great point. I'm reminded of a classic Princess Leah line from Star Wars.
Leah to Vader:
"The more you squeeze them, the more they slip through your fingers."

The more Yelooww tail clones that are foisted upon us, the more rebel/slow/artisan wine will pop up.

Of course, I still know people who listen to 'Hangin Tough' by New Kids on the Block. Oy.

Anonymous said...

Great blog entry!

I do love science, but shudder at its misuse. Trying to understand the components behind taste is an
enlightening exercise, but using the simplisticpicture it provides as a template to fabricate wine is
not.

These guys don't really appreciate or understand goodwine at all if they think they can break it down to anexact profile of variables.

Reminds me of somebusiness dude from Cornell telling me the same thingabout a restaurant at a food conference I was at, like you could patent a great restaurant. Maybe a chain or a concept, but not the best of actual restaurants,
where there are so many variables and most importantly such intangibles as soul, magic, and the uniqueinfluence of the people involved.

Anyway, I just say No to the uniformity of taste, and making things for the wrong reasons. Ugh is right.

Off to enjoy the spring day,
Nancy H.

caveman said...

Ann,

I know that we will survive. It was just amazed at how unoriginal some people can be. I mean, why even get in the wine business in the first place if you are going to just hunt for scores.

Leah was pretty hot too.

Annette said...

Great Post! Having sat across the table from Mr. McCloskey myself arguing with him not only about his methods but also the entire premise of his company many years ago, it warms my heart to see this kind of wine blogging. Enologix appeals to winery owners -- not necessarily winemakers (I feel I need to emphasize this point) -- it is the winery owners, afterall who want the money and prestige. Generally, winemakers have begrudged Mr. McCloskey's presence in the industry largely because, as you so deftly point out, his methods and philosophy take away from the reasons that most of us make wine, anyway -- the challenge of making something wonderful and distinctive from a only a winegrapes and not much else.

caveman said...

Annette,
I would love have to been a 'fly on the wall' for that conversation.
Bill

Dino said...

This has everything to do with marketing, getting the highest price for your wine. Laube, Parker, Suckling, et al. are, in a sense, market makers. Their palates are both discerning and consistent. They understand the "market fundamentals." Producers use their "quality scores" to price their wines. McCloskey has discovered through chromatography and regression analysis that their tastes are predictable and are correlated with a few components. I didn't reread this article word-for-word, but it seems to me that McCloskey boasted that wine was simple, only a dozen or so important flavor components. When you taste dozens of wines a day its understandable that certain flavor components will standout. McCloskey plays on this predictability in advising his clients.

When I started reading the Wine Advocate, years ago. It seemed to me that Parker was tasting Bordeaux wines against a chateau archetype. McCloskey has found a way to re-enforce some of those flavor components in California wines. To me this isn't about quality, its about marketing.

caveman said...

Dino,

I agree this is entirely a marketting question and if you notice I did not make mention of quality.

I think the issue at play here is how we use the tools that are available to us. I see nothing inherently wrong with the analytical tools that McCloskey has developed. What I do have a problem with is the way these tools (as well as other manipulations available)are used; to fabricate a wine to please such a small coterie of tastes, no matter how high in esteem you hold their taste buds.

The more people make wines for Parker et al, it follows that more these wines will become closer to the same profile. That is a slippery slope. I love the diversity that is the world of wine, and I hold winemakers in high esteem. As annette wrote, wine should be a reflction of the personality of the winemaker, not his or her adulation of Parker's tastebuds. If all they want is to make a buck, then there exist other avenues.

Dino said...

Can't a winemaker be a money grubbing a**hole? The formulated (manufactured) wines that garner high scores are for people that drink wine for status not enjoyment. Unfortunately, authentic wines can also receive high scores, but Margaux , Lafite, etc fetch high prices without reviews, always have and always will.

I would worry about whether some of the high scoring wines are in fact manufactured. I am sure that most if not all of the flavor components identified by McCloskey are available in high purity from custom chemical manufacturers, such as Sigma in St. Louis, or are easily synthesized from ready available precursors. Who is to say that some wine maker somewhere isn't a customer of Sigma and is adulterating his wines to earn high scores. He needs to keep his investors happy after all.

Annette said...

Dino,
You are right. Winemakers can be xxxx's. Sure, there's a lot of prestige involved for a winemaker, as well, but there are a lot of folks who don't (readily) stoop so low. Yeah, there are things that are added to wines -- like "Mega Purple" available from Canandaigua -- all of the time. You are right, it's all about marketing. You are also right about additives -- there are other methods as well: adding other, darker varietals to a wine or using other additives -- manufactured or not. I remember working with one winery that contracted Mr. McCloskey's company. The production staff was constantly questioned for "not extracting the full potential out of X lot or Y lot of grapes". There are many ways to over extract color and tannins from winegrapes, but we all questioned how the wine would taste if we were to achieve "full color potential"?

Consumers make many assumptions about wine, and one of those assumptions is that wine is from winegrapes and not much else. I'm not sure that most people really think about what goes into a bottle of wine. So the only way to change these practices is first of all getting this information out to the winedrinking public. Then, if people are pissed off enough and voice their concerns, things will change.

Anonymous said...

Business Week, 2006 Best and Worst Ideas. See link below,
http://images.businessweek.com/ss/06/12/1207_bestideas/source/12.htm
Naturally, if Enologix is the cutting edge it follows that convervatives will resist. The national media seem to believe that mathematics can do a better job protecting fine wine, and maybe, just maybe now, Enologix is filling real demand by winemakers to make wines consumer love to love. Something very interesting and positive is up, ... Give the professionals a chance!

Anonymous said...

Business Week: 2006 Best and Worst Ideas

Enologix made the "Best" list,

http://images.businessweek.com/ss/06/12/1207_bestideas/source/12.htm

Give the professionals a chance. When you slam the new you make it more interesting for winemakers, too.

Anonymous said...

Winemaker are the biggest sientists of all, but they are hiding it! See

What's really in that wine?
New federal labels may tell us more than we want to know.
By Corie Brown, Times Staff Writer
March 28, 2007