“If I was a winemaker and I made wine that tasted the same five years in a row, I would consider myself a failure.” This statement was greeted by a soft gasp of shock and then an uncomfortable silence that settled around the dinner table. The identity of the person who made the opening statement will forever remain a mystery, but I will try to shed some light upon the unique (and sometimes volatile) relationship between the winemaker, the marketing team and the consumer.
‘Death of a Salesman’ is a 1949 play written by American playwright Arthur Miller. It tells the story of Willy Loman, a failed salesman, who ultimately commits suicide. This flawed, but valiant deed marked the end of an unremarkable sales career. The reality is this: salespeople in the wine business are still under increasing pressure, as is the winemaker as well as the consumer. Seeing that the consumer has to fork out hard earned cash to enjoy some wine, it is up to the marketing team to convince the consumer to buy the winemaker’s wine. It is thus clear that there needs to be very good communication between the winemaker and the marketing team. All of this is old hat. What might not be that apparent, is that there exists two extreme opposite paradigms in the winemaking world.
Paradigm one: Based on extensive market research, the winemaker obtains information on existing markets and what their requirements are. Here the winemaker relies heavily on the interpretation and rendition of current markets by die marketing team. Past experience, current trends and forecasts are buzz words here. A quality level for each market segment is determined and wine is made and marketed according to the consumer preference of each segment. Forgive me, for I’m of course greatly reducing the complexity of the science that is involved in marketing and market research. If I may simplify even further, within this scenario the winemaker makes what the different markets want.
Paradigm two: The winemaker makes wine according to his taste and whims. The market is ostensibly much smaller than those described in paradigm one, seeing that consumers need to share the taste of the winemaker or need to adapt. During my stint in a big cellar in California, I met a highly eccentric winemaker who personified the second paradigm of winemaking. He was of the opinion that winemakers like him are part of a dying breed and winemakers should not be dictated by market preferences. In his own words: “If you like my wine, you buy it. If you don’t like it, *$#@* off!” I really liked this cowboy and I decided to stir the pot a little by pointing out that I’ve had excellent wines from wineries/winemakers representing both of the above mentioned paradigms. You can just imagine the earful that I got then…
Let’s revert to the opening statement: “If I was a winemaker and I made wine that tasted the same five years in a row, I would consider myself a failure.” Theoretically, an exceptional year will yield exceptional wine. This will probably change (improve?) the taste of the wine, if compared to a standard. The million dollar question is: Will your market accept the different taste or will you be met with a lynch mob?
You might want to ponder this whilst having a glass of wine. After all… “In vino veritas.”
Bernard Mocke is a technical consultant for Oenobrands
Chinese checkers is a board game that can be played by two, three, four, or six people, playing individually or with partners. The objective is to be first to race one’s pieces across the hexagram-shaped gameboard into the “home” section, which is the corner of the star opposite one’s starting corner, using single-step moves or moves which jump over other pieces. Others keep playing to establish 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th, and last place finishers.
Now what on earth does a board game have to do with wine, or anything remotely associated with wine, except for the fact that in some cases the two might go hand in hand… wine and games that is… Well, nothing really, except for the fact that predicting the style and quality of a wine as a result of the fruit and oenological processes, remains one of the most important and difficult parts of a viticulturist and winemaker’s job and is sometimes more luck than wisdom (This was confirmed by a very interesting sensorial lecture by Professor Heyman of UC Davis a few days ago).
Imagine having a tool in the laboratory which helps you to assess the maturity kinetics of your vineyards and its fruit profile helps you to optimize the picking date according to the desired wine profile and finally, helps you to create more consistent wine profile results, year after year, with multiple vineyards or blocks of the same cultivar.
The technology, called the Dyostem system (Berry Maturity Analyses system), to measure berry skin colour has been developed by Vivelys Society (France) and Montpellier SupAgro (France) a while ago and is currently being assessed commercially in the Northern and Southern Hemisphere. According to Professor Alain Deloire of the University of Stellenbosch, the method uses the evolution of the berry colour by applying optical techniques, as an indicator of berry ripening, which of course relate to the wine’s aromatic profile. In short: The average colour of the berries “predicts” the wine style as a result of the ripeness level of the fruit.
The term “optimal ripeness” is such an important, yet complex term that not even scientists can agree fully on a definition or all the complexities that it entails. Yet, the significance of “optimal ripeness” is reflected not only in the development of technologies like the Dyostem system and formal sensory techniques (BSA or Grape Berry Assessment), but also in the jargon used by winemakers when presenting wine tastings or trying to flog a few bottles to a restaurant.
Winemakers agree to the fact that “optimal ripeness” bares direct relation to the style of the required wine, which in turn is dictated by market or by the objective to produce a wine that reflect the expression of a typical terroir related profile. The classical indicators of “ripeness level” include sugar level or potential alcohol, natural acids (particularly malic and tartaric) and pH and of course various and diverse methods of spectral analyses to give us some insight into the colour ripeness and tannin or “mouth feel” ripeness. All these parameters strongly relate to the perception of the taste of the wine.
In lectures to students, when asked the question “but when exactly do you decide when to harvest?” of course I cannot give them a straight and simple answer. I do however think back to Christopher Walken’s answer to his daughter’s question “what should I do Dad?” in the movie the “Wedding Crashers”: “The best you can do is to use all information at hand to make the best possible decision.”
Dyostem I have never had the privilege to work with, but when it reaches the point where it does exactly what it was designed for, I am getting myself one of those…or like Orange winemaker Justin Jarrett said “I can walk down the rows of my vineyard and taste fruit and get it right, or hope I get it right… but I guess if I get it wrong, I’ll get it really wrong. This way you have some science to the process of determining picking times based on the flavours you want…”
There’s little need for me to rehash the back-and-forth in the wine media regarding alcohol levels: in short, the wheel has turned and we are back in the 1980s when it was fashionable to criticize California wine for having high alcohol.
Here we are again. The difference this time around is that there is a hard number on the lips of the critical: 14%. The narrative being pedaled suggests that wines over this level generally are problematic, inferior, out-of-balance, not true-to-type, lacking: terroir, focus, complexity precision, nuance, etc.
And I’ve commented here and elsewhere that I have noted zero interest in the topic among the visitors to our Tasting Salon. But the “over 14% sucks” meme has a life of its own, it’s out there, it won’t die; sort of like “the President is a foreign-born Muslim.”
Because of this persistent media attention, I figured that it was bound to happen—sooner or later—that one of my guests was going to comment on the “high” alcohol levels on the labels of my wines.
It happened like this. Three nice people came in and tasted through the five wines I had on offer: three Pinots, a Châteauneuf-du-Pape-style blend and last, a varietal Syrah. They seemed to be enjoying them. After the Syrah one of the guests asked “What’s the alcohol on these wines?” I answered “between 14.5% and 14.9%” and a couple of them started muttering “oh, that’s high—so-and-so won’t drink it.”
I politely asked them if they could have guessed that the wines had alcohols approaching 15% without being told, and each of them admitted “no” they couldn’t have. One commented that “…these wines don’t taste hot.” I explained that ethanol doesn’t really taste hot, but that other alcohols do—propanols, butanols, pentanols, etc. and their esters and oxidation products, collectively called congeners in the distillation biz.
These fermentation products are more likely to be produced by yeast under stress, and high initial sugar as well as high final ethanol concentrations are potent stressors, as are nutrient and co-factor deficiencies. In my winemaking I go out of my way to minimize the stresses on yeast (though not so far as to throw diammonium phosphate—DAP, a source of ammonia—at every ferment) and so the levels of these congeners are low in my finished wines. No “heat” on the palate.
I further explained that in fact few of my wines finish fermentation much over 13.5%-14% but they pick up as much as 1%-1.5% during barrel aging. This is because we have a dry barrel cellar. Inside the barrel there is 86% water and 14% alcohol, while outside there is an average of 30% water and 0% alcohol. To a first approximation, the thermodynamic drive for water to leave the barrel is over 3x what it is for alcohol, and so over the course of 2+ years aging in barrel the alcohol level of the wine inside actually goes up.
A wine made from grapes harvested at “optimal” ripeness and put to barrel at 13.5%, in our cellar may well end up near 15% when it is ready to go to bottle. This is not the same as harvesting the grapes over-ripe. Not only do these wines not taste hot, they don’t taste raisined.
Anyway, the offshoot was that these folks bought a case of wine, and intended to put some of in front of their “I won’t drink any wine over 14% because wine over 14% all tastes the same” friends and see what they think. Awesome.
John Kelly is the owner and winemaker of Westwood Wines, Sonoma California. This blog was originally published on his blog: “notes from the winemaker” on the 3rd of January 2012 at 14h52 to be precise.
Originally published July 2006:
I hear this all the time in the Tasting Salon — “I can’t drink much wine; it gives me a headache. I think I’m allergic to the sulfites.” I don’t know how this myth got started, but I sure would like to dispel it once and for all. You are not allergic to sulfites.
At least, the chances are 100,000 to 1 that you are not. And if you are in that 99.9999th percentile you KNOW it. You knew it when you woke up in the hospital after nearly dying of suffocation from your first trip to a salad bar or your first bite of dried fruit (potentially loaded with metabisulfite, to prevent browning).
People who are allergic to sulfites go into anaphylactic shock when they are exposed to them — they choke to death. So far as I know there is no research to support the existence of a range of reaction to sulfite allergy. “Allergic to sulfites” equals anaphylaxis; no choking — no allergy.
I will allow the possibility that there could be a lesser physiological reaction, but I have not seen any sort of intermediate in myself or any of the hundreds of people I have worked with in all my years in the winery cellar. And in the cellar we not only ingest sulfites, but frequently breathe in clouds of sulfur dioxide — a much harsher test of sensitivity. Reactions may be choking and burning throat and eyes, but never headache.
You can do your own test at home (but only if you know you are not susceptible to anaphylaxis!). Light a kitchen match in a closed space and breathe in the fumes. If you develop a headache similar to the one you get when you drink wine, post a comment and let us know.
And by the way, everything fermented has a small amount of sulfites in it, because yeast produces sulfite as a metabolic by-product. Some wine yeast produce more than others. But every wine — even “organic” wines labeled with “no sulfites” — have some sulfites in them. So other fermented foods (bread, yogurt, kimchee, etc.) should give you a headache as well.
Update March 2009:
This piece has generated a flood of comments along the lines of: “I once ate this and this and this and this, and one of them contained sulfites, and I got a headache.” Some of these comments include the assertion “I have been told I have sulfite allergy.” I have rejected and will continue to reject publication of this line of commentary.
I am not a physician. If I was, I would not venture to make diagnoses online. I am a trained experimental scientist, and as such will say that coincidence is not the same as causation. The continued assertion that “I ate or drank something that contains sulfites and got a headache therefore I am allergic to sulfites” demsonstrates how deeply and unshakably this “sulfites in wine causes heacaches” meme has penetrated popular culture.
I am waiting for one of the “I have been told I am allergic to sulfites” comments to include “…by my physician who did his/her dissertation on sulfite sensitivities at [insert respected medical institution here].” I have not seen any such coda, and frankly don’t expect to.
John Kelly is the owner and winemaker of Westwood Winery in Sonoma, California.