Sunday, December 25, 2011

What makes a good wine label?

What makes a good wine label?  I don't know.

My next WSET diploma assignment is to write a paper about what makes good wine packaging, which can include labels, back labels, and other packaging like non-bottle containers.  I've been doing a good amount of reading in the marketing literature, and I'm still confused.  This is a seriously soft science.  If you thought tasting wine comprised lots of variables, try selling wine! 

Marketing professionals claim that the wine market is split into at least two and maybe as many as five segments that are looking for different things.  At lower levels, there are commodity consumers that are highly price sensitive.  Labeling matters less to this group as they are looking across a fairly narrow range of products for which they have some knowledge.  If it's Gallo or Vendage or Charles Shaw, they are largely interchangeable, thus packaging and price is far more important.

At the highest price bands, labels aren't very important either.  For example, if a consumer is about to shell out $250 for a bottle of Cayuse Bionic Frog, the odds are excellent that they know a lot about it and could care less what the label looks like.  They care more about the wine itself, its scarcity and cult status, awards won, etc.

It's in the middle, I think, labels become really important.  Consumers in the middle band are not particularly brand loyal.  They love trying new wines and having new experiences, and when they look at the wall o' wine, it's the label that often makes the sale.

Here are some labels that have won recent awards.

But really, there is no formula.  Simple or complex, colorful or monochrome, graphic or text based, etc. even award winning labels can run the gamut.  I remember when I was a wine novice, being bewildered by the range.  I used to frequent a grocery store in a section of DC where lots of embassy and consular families lived.  I would follow a foreign-looking shopper around and just get whatever bottle they bought.  Catching the eye of the middle price-band consumer, and making the sale of an unknown amidst that giant intimidating wall of wine, is the goal of a huge industry constantly asking - what makes a great label?

I can find only one contribution to the discussion, and it comes from studies of blind tasting.  According to numerous studies, consumers are very suggestable.  If you tell a person you taste smoke and cherries in a wine, they will often find those flavors too.  If you tell a person that Parker rated a wine very highly, they will enjoy it more than if you told them it got a low score.  I'll be doing reviews of several studies in future posts, but for now take my word for it.  fMRI machines confirm that if a person thinks the wine is good, the pleasure centers of their brain will light up during tasting.  This is some hard damn science.

Thus, my theory on wine labels is that if they can manage to convey the idea that wine in the bottle is good, it is a successful label and it will help sell bottles as well as spur repeat sales.

So how can I quantify that?  Dunno.  Yet.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Judging in a wine competition

A few weeks ago, I was asked to be a judge in a state level wine competition.  Of course, I said yes because it sounds like a lot of fun and might be great networking.  On the downside, it is really difficult to be critical of a huge volume of wine.  It's just physically difficult.

Once a friend who owns a wine shop called me with a rare opportunity.  A big time wine critic was coming to his store to taste through a portfolio of Australian wine, and the shop owner was inviting his friends over to taste afterward.  There were over 200 full throttle high-alcohol Australian wines, and towards the end, I could only taste iron and copper.  Why?  Because all the skin had been ripped off my gums and mouth and I was tasting blood!

I am told that the same problem happens at wine competitions.  There are just so many wines to taste that you get drunk even while spitting.  Your palate gets blown out and you end up giving top marks to anything you can still actually taste at the end, usually really high-alcohol fruit bombs.  Well constructed wines with finesse or medium body need not apply.

In my research on how to be a good judge, I've not been encouraged.  Robert Hodgson published two papers in the Journal of Wine Economics in 2009 that are instructive.  Both were written using what sounds like the coolest dataset ever, a set of tasting grades from a competition where researchers had slipped duplicate wines into the lists to see if the judges would be consistent with their rankings.

The first paper is a methodological mess (see my blog post about why you cannot perform mathematical calculations on non-number data -- adding, subtracting, multiplying, and dividing).  The author took rankings, turned them into arbitrary numbers, and then performed odd math to see if critics could taste the exact same wines and award the same grades. 

Okay, let me take a second to say how statistically ridiculous this method is, and an how amazed I am that it got past peer review.  If someone is asking people to rate their interests on a scale of one to five, and I like cotton candy 5 and liver 1, there is no reason to think I'll like liver flavored candy a 3.  It makes no sense.

Despite the egregious abuse of math, it's pretty obvious by Hodgson's description of the data that the judges stink, at a major competition, with judges from the industry.  I cannot say that there is any statistical validity to his conclusion, but there is lots of reason to be concerned.

The second paper makes me much happier as a statistician and much more nervous as a competition judge.  Here, Hodgson uses a test called Cohen's Kappa, which is really cool because it looks at if the judge scored the same wine the same way, but also gives partial credit if he or she got close.  This statistic showed that only 30 percent of judges could rate wine consistently.  Many more judge fairly randomly.  Hrm...

So I'm worried about doing a poor job, but then I'd be in good company.  When I think about the wineries submitting samples, however, I feel a little better.  For them, a competition is a no-lose proposition - they either get a medal to display in their tasting room, or they get nothing.  There is no negative for a poor rating, only praise if they get it.  So I'll just try to be contentious, and remember the advice in the excellent Fermentation Blog.
  • Concentrate.
  • Be aware that my personal tastes may not reflect great wine (an oaky Chardonnay can be excellent even if it isn't to my taste).
  • Go back and review Wine Faults by John Hudelson.
  • Stay hydrated and keep spitting.
Wish me luck!

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Tong and Minerality

So there's this quarterly magazine for serious geeks called Tong.  It's published in Belgium and to get it in America it costs like $150.  It's not glossy, there are no ads, most if not all of the authors are either MWs or are really famous...lots of words.  Each issue is grouped around a particular theme, like Bordeaux, Chardonnay, or Oak.  Pretty geeky.  I love it, but I wish someone I knew got it and would loan it to me because it's just really really expensive.

Anyway, that's neither here nor there.  Tong just came out with a book that they call a general text on Wine.  It's called, "Wine."  Being a total snob and shocked at the value of the dollar against the Euro, I wasn't going to order it until they emailed this excerpt that dovetailed completely with what I am studying in my WSET classes, namely soil nutrients and anaerobic fermentation.  It's fairly provocative for an intro text:

(An excerpt from our book "WINE", p66) The word “minerality” often crops up in tasting notes, especially when describing white wine. This often implies that there should be a direct link between the minerality of soil and wine. The generally accepted notion assumes the higher the mineral content of the soil, the more intense the mineral flavour in wine. This is nonsense. Most minerals do not have a flavour and at most a slightly salty taste. Their presence in wine is minute and they go organoleptically unnoticed amongst fruit flavour, tannin, acidity and alcohol. Scientific trials have shown that there is no direct relationship between soil composition and the flavour of wine. Minerals are essential plant nutrients necessary for growth, photosynthesis, etc. The most important minerals are nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, calcium, magnesium, sulphur and iron. A surplus of minerals in the soil causes vigorous growth of the vine and excessive yields that result in a thin and flat wine. Therefore the theory that more soil minerals make a more complex wine is obsolete. “Mineralic” wines are mostly grown on stony soils which tend to be poor because they contain little nutrient-rich humus. Vines on stony soils have to fight for survival and the grapes, just like the vines, accumulate few minerals, especially very little nitrogen. This can cause problems during fermentation as yeasts require nitrogen to convert sugar into alcohol. If there is insufficient nitrogen in the grapes, yeasts will split sulphur-containing amino acids to access nitrogen. This can cause the formation of volatile sulphur compounds which can come across as “mineralic” in wine. This does not point to a sulphur-rich soil but explains the indirect link between soil and wine flavour.


I can buy this from the point of simplified chemistry.  All that stuff about nitrogen starvation during fermentation is well covered in several of my textbooks.  But it does beg a huge question, which is "what the hell good is site selection?"  Why is wine from one block always a little tighter than wine from the one next to it?  A little richer, a little leaner, a little more flinty?  Why can some critics make astonishingly accurate blind identifications of soil types? 

Perhaps it is because primary fermentation is only part of the story of wine.  We are talking about hundreds of different chemical reactions and thousands of esters, volitile compounds, and byproducts.  I suspect there is more to this story.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Chenin Blanc Tasting

Still more appologies to my faithful six subscribers for my dearth of posting. Life, work, and a very sick dog got in the way. I haven't even been tasting much in the last little bit. Except, that is, for a huge Chenin Blanc event I had at my house last weekend. I'll post my tasting notes in a few days. Meanwhile, here was the setup.

Chenin Blanc is the boneless, skinless chicken breast of the wine world.  Its fairly neutral palate of flavors readily shows differences in terroir and winemaking technique.  For the WSET Diploma student, this lack of native profile means that each region and style must be learned and memorized by itself, which is a time consuming proposition and somewhat frustrating.  Also, the damn vine is very vigorous and if it grows too large too fast, the grapes lose acidity and start to taste like Chardonnay, which is a whole other thing...I could go on...sigh.  So this is our attempt to get one of everything together in one room and nail this sucker down!

Flight 1 -- USA
Chenin is considered a blending grape in most US appellations, with varietal bottlings only in very good years.  The big exception is Clarksburg, located in the Sacramento Valley of California.  Clarksburg is home to Bogle Winery, and while most of it’s wine is sold in bulk to other producers, it has been trying to make a name for itself lately as a cool climate region.  

2008 Williams Selyem Chenin Blanc Limestone Ridge Vista Verde Vineyard, Sonoma Coast, CA
2008 Dry Creek Vineyard Dry Chenin Blanc, Clarksburg, CA
2009 Dry Creek Vineyard Dry Chenin Blanc Wilson Ranch, Clarksburg, CA
2007 Vinum Cellars Chenin Blanc CNW, Clarksburg, CA
2009 L'Ecole No. 41 Chenin Blanc Walla Voila, Walla Walla, WA
2010 Field Recordings Jurassic Park Vineyard, Santa Ynez Valley, CA

Flight 2 -- Anjou, Loire, France
You get a little of everything in Anjou, from Malbec to Gamay, Chenin to Chardonnay.  But instead of thinking of the region as a hopeless jumble of mediocrity, look a little deeper to find some of the best examples of dry and sweet chenin.  Savennières, for example is home to Nicolas Joly, warrior monk and voodoo viticulturalist, producing some of the most complex and mineral wine of any grape.  In Bonnezeaux, the minimum sugar requirements are higher than Sauternes!  The wines of Quarts-du-Chaume are usually made using the technique of letting the grapes raisin on the vines.  The region is so good they have petitioned the INAO to become the first Grand Cru vineyard outside Burgundy!  

2009 Domaine des Roches Neuves (Thierry Germain) Saumur L'Insolite
2009 Château d'Epiré Savennières Cuvée Spéciale
2003 Nicolas Joly Savennières Roche aux Moines Clos de la Bergerie
2003 Nicolas Joly Clos de la Coulée de Serrant

Flight 3 -- Touraine, Loire, France
To those who remember our Cabernet Franc tasting, the region of Touraine conjures up nightmare visions of stemmy, thin, acidic  Bourgueil and Chinon.  Well not this time, buddy.  Touraine is home to Vouvray and Montlouis, which make the most widely known and popular style of Chenin on the market.  The conditions of the area make it one of the last to be harvested in all of France, making the wine very ripe indeed.

2008 François Chidaine Montlouis-sur-Loire Clos du Breuil
2008 François Chidaine Montlouis-sur-Loire Les Tuffeaux
2008 François Pinon Vouvray Silex Noir
2008 François Chidaine Vouvray Le Bouchet
2008 Foreau Vouvray Demi-Sec
2009 Domaine Coteau de la Biche Vouvray Sec

Flight 4 -- South Africa
First planted in the mid 17th Century, there is more Chenin Blanc in South Africa than in all of France.  In the global south, Chenin takes on a much richer and fruitier profile.  One often finds tropical flavors and aromas too.  Whether that is because of terroir or lower fermentation temperatures is a matter of debate.  Unfortunately for the WSET student, lots of SA wine goes to England where they write the tests, and not so much here. For example, I was unable to find even one example of wine from the Breede River Valley, which lies behind the costal range and is very important.  Road Trip?

2010 Essay Chenin Blanc
2009 Badenhorst Family Wines Chenin Blanc Secateurs - Swartland
2009 Mulderbosch Chenin Blanc Steen op Hout - Stellenbosch
2010 Beaumont Wines Chenin Blanc - Walker Bay
2009 Faraway Farm Chenin Blanc Bosmans Crossing - Western Cape

Flight 5 -- Other Regions
When you see the wines here, you’ll understand why we needed a misc. category.

2006 Mianville Jasnières Chant de Vigne - Upper Loire
2009 Sula Chenin Blanc - Nashik, India
N.V. L. A. Cetto Chenin Blanc Valle de Guadalupe, Baja California, Mexico

Flight 6 -- Sparkling Touraine
With weather patterns in the Loire so variable, machine harvesting is often impossible.  Instead, pickers make as many as six passes through the vineyard, selecting ripe bunches.  This is one explanation for the variety to sweetness levels found in the finished wine.  Often the first couple of passes are really nasty for table wine, but make an excellent sparkler.

N.V. Jean-Claude Bougrier Vouvray Brut
N.V. François Chidaine Montlouis-sur-Loire Brut

Flight 7 -- Old, Rare, Sticky
‘Nuff said?

1997 René Renou Bonnezeaux Cuvée Zenith
2004 Domaine des Baumard Coteaux du Layon Clos de Sainte Catherine
1985 Moulin Touchais Coteaux du Layon
1997 Domaine Jo Pithon Coteaux du Layon Chaume
2009 Huët Vouvray Moelleux 1ère Trie Le Mont
2008 Terra Blanca Arch Terrace Cherry Hill Vineyard Late Harvest Chenin Blanc, Yakima Valley, WA

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Some recent tasting notes

Sorry for the dearth of posts these last two weeks, but I have been tasting some really good wines.  Here are some recent highlights from my wine cellars (closets...whatever).

Harlan Estate - The Maiden - 2007 -
I just don't see it. Yea, I get the chocolate, but the form is of unsweetened cocoa. The pH is way way lower than other top Napa's, and the tannins are pretty darn dry. I have two more in the cellar, so we'll see what happens in a few years.  88 points

Bodegas Alta Moncayo - Campo de Borgia - 2005
Dripping with ripe fruit, chocolate and spice. The secondary characteristics are just beginning to show up, and I am happy to report that the fruit isn't fading. A bit hot.  92 points

Booker Vineyard - White - 2007
Deep golden color, similar to an aged Burgundy. But the nose is pure Rhone. Honey, beeswax, spices, smoke, pineapple. The texture is oily despite a lively acid and the flavors are deep and profound. This is really really excellent.  93 points

Owen Roe - Crawford Beck Vineyard Pinot Gris - 2010
This was an atypical example of both grape and terroir, but since I don't usually prefer Oregon Pinot Gris, I enjoyed it. Green apples, pears, lemon. Bright Acid. Clean with a medium-minus finish. Not much minerality and no trace of Oregon mud that so often dominates this type of wine. 89 points

Michel & Stéphane Ogier Côte-Rôtie Cuvée la Belle Hélène - 1997
Purchased almost 12 years ago, which totally vindicates my bizarre wine storage, it was in perfect condition. This wine was an archetype Northern Rhone from a warm vintage. The acid was still bright and the tannins were fine and ripe, creating a frame for garrigue, tar, black olives, provencal herbs, black cherries and bacon. It was full bodied but still lively and wonderful. Decanted for about three hours and started to fade in five hours - I think it is at peak now. 94 points

Dr. Loosen Erdener Prälat Riesling Auslese - 2003
Surprisingly dry for the ripeness level, but then it was a vintage of extreme heat. Unctuous, silky, but still alive on the palate. Beautiful flavors of stone, petrol, lemon, ripe apple, and honey. Long finish.  92 points

Domaine Chandon Pinot Noir L'Argile - 2006
No obvious flaws, but no charm either. It's heavily manipulated and it could have been from anywhere. I get no sense of place. 87 points

Monday, October 17, 2011

I told you so

You may remember my post a few weeks ago about the irrationality of being a loyal customer.  My argument is that loyalty costs you money as one can often find cult wines at retail outlets in this economy and very often at a better prices.

Well I found this photo on

THE cult Costco.  'nuff said?

Friday, September 30, 2011

Statistical Rant II - Price is an Indicator of Quality

In my last statistics post, I complained about a paper from the American Association of Wine Economists where the authors played fast and loose with statistical methods to come up  with meaningless results.  In this post, I want to address the setup and aims of the study.

In the interim, several blogs, the winediarist in particular, have held long and fairly tedious chains of comments about the study by people who have clearly not read it and do not understand statistics.

Here's my problem: it's a small bore student paper that sticks closely to it's data, applies the wrong test, but most importantly, doesn't appreciate the role of pricing in an economic system.  You see, price is a measure of quality along with all the measuring systems in the paper, especially in terms of 2005 Bordeaux data set, where the prices have been reacting to scores and consumer demand for about four years.  If you want to to measure point systems against release prices, well... that's another story... one that has nothing to do with consumer attitudes, but it might be interesting.

I urge anyone interested in the subject to read

Also a good read is

The field of wine pricing is rich, really rich.  There's cult wines that price according to perceived scarcity.  Grocery stores pricing is very sensitive to sales figures.  The three-tier system of distribution in this country makes price sensitive discounting an interesting subject.

The important thing to remember, however, is that price and ratings are both measuring the same thing - quality.  In other words, where the market is at equilibrium, better wines will cost more and command higher prices.  Short term disequilibrium will occur where a hidden gem hasn't been discovered yet or an old vintage is discounted to make room in the market for a new release, or a loss leader is advertised to get people into a store.  But in general, the better the wine is, the more it will cost.  And the more ratings points a wine garners from critics, the more it will cost.  Price and rating are both telling the same story (they are both y variables in a study with no x), so to compare them doesn't bring much new knowledge to the table.

I have some specific statistical objections in terms of the study's data that go along with this phenomena that we call multicollinearity.  For example, CT scores suffer from bias because the people who shelled out lots of money are less likely to rate a wine poorly than those who pay less.  Tanzer, at least in the hour I spent exploring his website, does not claim to taste blind and so his score will be biased at least in part by reputation, which is also collinear with price.  Last, the Parker data is mixed with barrel samples that aren't blind and post-release scores that are.  But one cannot draw any conclusions from this study because of the procedural mistakes.  It would be interesting to go back.

I'm actually writing a whole article on this based on Benjamin Lewin, MW writings in his two books and Tong magazine.  Stay tuned!

Monday, September 26, 2011

Customer Loyalty is Irrational

I was listening to NPR this evening on my way home, cause I'm a geek, and I heard a disturbing report.  A little while ago I called one of the banks that issues me a credit card, and asked them for a better rate.  I thought with interest rates going down, my credit ratings, and my payment history, there would be no problems.  But I was wrong!  They offered me only a tiny little decrease, and tonight I found out why.  The bank has created a statistic that measures my  likelyhood of shopping around for a better rate.  In other words, they are punishing me for being loyal.

But they should.  In economic terms, loyalty is irrational.  One should always be willing, for example, to abandon the mom and pop establishment in favor of a big box store that sells cheaper underwear.  Likewise if mom and pop beat the price, we should switch back.  The same is true of wines, except there it's a little harder.  Wine companies go to great lengths to convince us that their products are not interchangeable.  They also like to create exclusive clubs and allocation lists to attract our loyalty.

Times being what they are, however, I would like to give out some free advice to consumers and winemakers.  Consumers, be fickle.  Wineries, you are going to have to be very special to keep us.  Proliferation of internet tools is allowing us comparison of products more than ever before, and the economy is allowing access to "cult" wines like never before.  I can now compare prices of all the makers of Cabernet from the To-Kalon vineyard now.  I am able to order Pinot Noir from almost a dozen places that use the Shea Vineyard.  I can do searches on 90+ Parker wines below $20 on any number of online stores.  For all but the most scarce wine, this is a buyers market.

I'll pick on Araujo a little more, makers of the famed Eisele Estate Cabernet Sauvignon.  For three years, I paid $275 for 1 bottle of each vintage.  Then when they got a great vintage, they raised the minimum purchase to a level I could no longer afford.  I had thought that loyalty through more modest vintages should have meant something, but like my bank, they didn't budge.  But like my bank, they aren't the only game in town.  I can now get Araujo from other sources than their list...and cheaper too.  The winery charges its list members full retail markup on it's wine, but a trip to yields 11 stores that sell it for less.  Harlan, cheaper. Diamond Creek, cheaper.  Lokoya, you get the idea.

Wineries, you cannot charge full markup anymore.  I know that the lure of getting about four times more than a wholesaler offers is grand, but it pisses off your loyal customers.  And if a blockhead like me can abandon you, so can other irrational consumers.  And do something about those damn shipping costs!

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Statistical Rant Part 1

subtitle - why respected organizations fail to observe basic math skills

Before I became a chef and wine geek, I had another career - I was a DC policy wonk.  I got my BA and MPA in Washington and I lived and breathed politics.  One of my greatest interests was the way studies were touted around town, and I made it my business to study lots of economics and statistics so that I could understand and either support or debunk as needed.  I don't have enough training to call myself either an economist or a statistician...but this post requires only the knowledge I learned in my first undergraduate course.

Last week, the American Association of Wine Economists, of which I am a member, released a new Working Paper titled A Buyer's Dilemma - Whose Rating Should a Wine Drinker Pay Attention To?  The blogoshpere has paid some attention to this paper, including Terroirist, Eric Levine of Cellartracker, and Vinography.

Basically the findings of the paper are that CellarTracker scores more closely track price point than Parker. Tanzer is sort of in the middle.  This is based on a collection of scores and prices for the 2005 vintage in Bordeaux.  The implication is that if you are looking at bang for buck, rely on Cellartracker scores (though the authors to their credit do not make this leap, confining their results to the data - 2005 Bordeaux).  (Disclaimer  -- I subscribe to all three content providers).  But the study is sadly and fatally flawed.  In my next post, I will go into several reasons why the content of the study may be misleading, but today I want to talk about math.

Bang for Buck

Everyone understands the buck part.  The Bang is the thing.  Bang, hedonic qualities, juicy goodness, wow factor, number of stars, number of points.  Bang is not quantifiable in mathematical terms.

All of math is based on the number line that was stuck to your desk in primary school.  1, 2, 3, 4, etc.  The distance between 1 and 2 is 1.  The distance between 3 and 7 is 4.  You get the idea.  There is no rating system in existence that can draw a number line and say the distance, in units of goodness, between wine A and wine B is 12.  Furthermore, I have never seen any of them make that claim.  Parker gives 50 points just for being alcohol; Tanzer clearly states that his system is based on wow factors and not quantification, and CellarTracker lets people grade in any manner they see fit.

No, wine scores are not, as we say in the industry, interval values, like those we find on a number line.  If they were, you could mix a glass with equal parts 92 and 93 point wines and the result would get a 92.5.  No, wine scores are ordinal values, where there is a difference between say, 4 and 5 stars, but we can't really quantify that gap.  Other examples of ordinal values include military ranks, top ten lists, and the finishing places of runners in a race.  The difference between the finishers could be thousandths of a second or hours.  The great consequence to social scientists here is that you cannot add, subtract, divide, and multiply ordinal values; and that is exactly what the authors of this paper have done.

The Desire to Quantify

I understand the desire, the need to make things into numbers and then line them up.  Social scientists are all alike in this respect, they want some data and they want it to say something about the world.  But data in the form of numbers is hard to come by, and way way more often than you might realize, a researcher will clasp onto a set of numbers and run with them despite the warning signs (read footnotes!).  And here I want to emphasize a problem with the toolbox of statistics.  In math, if you plug random stuff into a calculation, it usually won't work.  The equation won't balance, you get irrational numbers, division by zero, an obviously bizzare result, or something.  In statistics, when you plug your numbers into the equation, you always get an answer.  It is the primary job of the statistician no to do math, it is to understand that data, ask the correct questions, perform the apporpriate tests, and correctly understand their result. 

In this study, the authors used a t-test.  Also called a student's t-test, and one with great tradition in the alcoholic world, having been invented to help quality control at the Guinness Brewery in the early 1900s.  I cribbed the text from wikipedia to show what the test looks like:

t = {\overline{X}_1 - \overline{X}_2 \over s_{\overline{X}_1 - \overline{X}_2}}
s_{\overline{X}_1 - \overline{X}_2} = \sqrt{{s_1^2 \over n_1} + {s_2^2  \over n_2}}.
Where s2 is the unbiased estimator of the variance of the two samples, n = number of participants, 1 = group one, 2 = group two. Note that in this case,  {s_{\overline{X}_1 - \overline{X}_2}}^2 is not a pooled variance. For use in significance testing, the distribution of the test statistic is approximated as being an ordinary Student's t distribution with the degrees of freedom calculated using
 \mathrm{d.f.} = \frac{(s_1^2/n_1 + s_2^2/n_2)^2}{(s_1^2/n_1)^2/(n_1-1) + (s_2^2/n_2)^2/(n_2-1)}.
That can look scary, but the the top equation is the key.  It is comparing the mean of two samples against a hypothetical "regular" meanBut you cannot add, subtract, divide or multiply ordinal variables.

Wrong test, meaningless result, even if it churned out numbers that seemed to make sense.  And yes, any freshman in college can tell you this, and anyone who claims to be a wine economist should too.  Not that this study is unusual in making this error.  You see it all the time in studies about health care policy.  But that is another blog entry for a different blog.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

WSET Aroma List

The Wine and Spirits Education Trust has a very strict method it teaches for tasting wine. I described the Advanced method many posts ago, and now I am reading about and learning the diploma method in anticipation of new classes starting this week.

In the beginning levels, they don't care much about specifics. Does the fruit taste red or black? Is there citrus? Are the flavors fresh or stewed?  The focus is on big picture and evaluating balance.  And then with each level, the taster is asked to be more and more specific until the diploma level. Here is the approved list of flavors and aromas:

Floral -- acacia, honeysuckle, chamomile, elderflowe, geranium, generic blossom

Perfume -- rose, violet, iris, neroli, honey, soap

Green Fruit -- apple (green/ripe), gooseberry, pear, custard apple, quince, grapey, amylic

Citrus Fruit -- grapefruit, lemon, lime, zest (orange/lemon)

Stone Fruit -- peach, apricot (fresh/dried), nectarine

Tropical Fruit -- banana, lychee, mano, melon, passion fruit, pineapple

Red Fruit -- redcurrant, cranberry, rapberry, strawberry, red cherry, plum (fresh/baked)

Black Fruit -- blackcurrant, blackberry, bramble, blueberry, black cherry

Unripeness -- capsicum, grass, white pepper, leafiness, tomato, potato

Herbaceous -- grass, asparagus, blackcurrant leaf, pyrazine

Herbal -- eucalyptus, mint, medicinal, lavender, fennel, dill

Cooked -- cabbage, tinned vegetables, black olive

Sweet Spice -- cinnamon, cloves, ginger, nutmeg, vanilla

Pungent -- black pepper, licorice, juniper

Autolytic -- yeast, biscuit, bread, toast, lees

Dairy -- butter, cheese, cream, yogurt

Mineral -- earth, petrol, kerosene, rubber, tar, smoke, stone/steel, wet wool

Oak -- vanilla, butterscotch, toast, cedar, charred wood, smoke, acrid, resinous

Kernal -- almond, marzipan, coconut, hazelnut, walnut, chocolate, coffee

Maturity -- vegetal, mushroom, hay, wet leaves, forest floor, tobacco, gamey, savoury

Anisoles -- mustiness, wet carboard, TCA

Brettanomyces -- animal, leather, meaty, wet plaster, vinyl, farmyard

Oxidation -- caramel, toffee, staleness, sherry, aldehydes

Volitile Acidity -- vinegar, solvents, nail polish remover

Reduction -- mercaptans, cabbage, eggs, sweat, rubber, onion, garlic, blocked drains

Other -- beetroot, rot, mold

And to answer your next question, yes, that's it. Any responses not on the list will not be graded. Which is good because it prevents bullshit like "it tastes like the white peach my first girlfriend fed me on a sticky summer....." But it also prevents things like noting the difference between bosc pears and anjou pears, which is huge. Also, being British, they have loads of stuff I've never smelled on this list, like blackcurrant leaf and custard apple. So look for my for my future post where I try to collect all these scents into my aroma kit.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Harvest Report from Virginia

Well if you believe in signs from God, you have to think he doesn't much care for wineries and vineyards in Virginia this year.  After reading lots of weather reports and talking to a few winemakers, my impression of this vintage is that it was quite a challenge to make good wine.

Spring -- Between 40 and 80 days after bud break in the spring, a vine will begin to flower.  The temperature during this period needs to be within a fairly narrow band, between about 58 and 68 F (15-20 C).  If spring is wet and cold as it was in Virginia, many flowers won't get fertilized or will do so at uneven rates.  As the flowers give way to fruit, the crop will be smaller where fertilization failed, and within clusters, there will be big gaps, small berries and big berries.  These 'chickens and hens' will cause problems later becayse they will ripen at different rates.  When a picker is evaluating a bunch and sees some grapes ready to burst with ripeness, and others still green and hard, the correct path is difficult to determine.  A machine harvester is often a better choice in these cases, as it will shake off only the berries with loose (ripe) pedicels, leaving the hard ones.  Also, on the brighter side, these 'shattered' clusters allow more airflow and have fewer problems with mildew and rot.

photo source:

photo source:

Summer -- This summer was hot and short.  Hot is okay, of course.  Vines need lots of sun and heat to produce great grapes.  The concern here is with heat spikes.  During a heat spike, a vine might shut down and stop photosynthesis.  Without photosynthesis, the grape will not accumulate sugars, and eventually will ripen without being sweet.  There are lots of ways to deal with heat spikes: cool water spritzing, shading with tarps of cheesecloth, big fans to keep air moving, but all are expensive.

Fall and Harvest -- Virginia had the effects of two hurricanes at the end of August and start of September.  In fact, some parts of the state had 10 days or more in a row of rain, with levels more than 4 inches above average.  Many growers brought in grapes in advance of the hurricane Irene, at sugar and ripeness levels below optimal.  Those who waited out Irene, but got caught picking in the 10 days of rain that started in September, picked grapes that were swollen with water and whose flavors will be dilute.  Some used the industrial equivalent of the Dyson Blade hand dryer to blow water off during harvest.  For varieties that ripen later in the month like Cabernet, mold and rot will be a major problem.  A berry that is split by rain swelling contains 40 times more 'organisms' than whole berries.  Whole clusters will form beards.

photo source:

photo source:

Options are limited for this smount of soggyness in the vineyard.  There will surely be great pressure to rush the harvest in to limit the damage.  Then only rigorous sorting will prevent very funky wine.

This vintage is an excellent challenge to winemakers indeed and it will separate those trying to make great wine from those content to charge $20 per bottle of crap to tourists.  I suppose I am setting myself up for a future tasting report...shudder...but I am up to the task.

Meanwhile, the weather elsewhere in the wine world has been, um, sub-optimal.  Cold damp spring on the Sonoma Coast has lead to a record late fruit set complete with widespread shatter.  Hail has destroyed large parts of the Mosel and St. Emilion, and Australia continues with a multi-year drought.   

Saturday, September 10, 2011

DC is the land of winos!

Hey all, this is just a re-post from bottlenotes, but it suprised the heck out of me!
The United States of Winos

The capital’s other spending habit

american_flag_wine_glassIt’s no secret that California, New York, Washington State, and Oregon make most of the wine produced in the U.S.* But ever wonder which states drink the most of it? The list of heavy sippers may (or may not) surprise you:

State (Per Capita Consumption 2009 in gallons)**
• District of Columbia (6.6)
• New Hampshire (4.8)
• Massachusetts (4.1)
• Vermont (4.1)
• Nevada (3.8)
• Connecticut (3.6)
• Delaware (3.6)
• New Jersey (3.6)
• Rhode Island (3.4)
• California (3.4)
• Hawaii (3.4)

Income appears to be the best predictor for wine consumption. With the exception of Vermont (in 22nd place), these states all rank in the top 20 for median household income. New Hampshire (1), Connecticut (2), and New Jersey (4) are in the top five.***

However, most of these states happen to drink heartily in general. With the exception of Connecticut, California, and New Jersey, each ranks in the top 18 for alcohol consumption per capita.

Why is D.C. so far ahead of the pack? Foreign embassies and their ample entertaining budgets may explain this outlier. Nevada probably ranks higher than expected too because casinos are liberal with their “free” beverages.

So, no, Washington doesn’t seem to be drinking your tax dollars, however much they might be tempted to.

*U.S. Department of the Treasury Alcohol Tax and Tobacco Trade Bureau **Beer Institute
***U.S. Census Bureau, Current Population Survey, 2008, 2009, and 2010 Annual Social and Economic Supplement

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

New MWs Announced

The Institute of Masters of Wine has just announced an astounding 11 new Masters of Wine!  Usually, a class tends to be between 2 and 8 people, so this is quite an accomplishment to have so many pass the grueling tests that I hope someday to pass myself.  There are now about 300 MWs in the world.  The test consists of four three-hour written exams on winemaking, viticulture, business and economics, and issues in wine.  There are 3 12-wine blind tastings where you have to write a paper on each wine in about 2 hours.  And finally, there is a dissertation of original research you must write and defend.  It is considered to be the most difficult and prestigious wine  certification in the world.  You can read about the freshly minted MWs at

Monday, September 5, 2011

Book Report -- Wine Faults: Causes, Effects, Cures

John Hudelson holds a PhD in Chemistry and has worked for decades in the wine industry.  He created this book from a PowerPoint presentation for wine judges on the difference between a flaw and a fault, but it grew bigger, eventaully becoming a very complete list indeed.

This book is not for the afficianado of wine.  It isn't for sommeliers, or most students.  It is for people with several chemistry classes under their belt who are going to make a living by making wine.  Parts of it are completely impenetrable and had me going to Wiki multiple times, and I still don't understand it!

For example, there are several chemical compounds in wine that can cause or speed up the production of volatile sulfur compounds (bad) in the absence of oxygen.  That is important because most winemakers are trying to avoid introducing oxygen into winemaking.  But there is a chart of half-reactions with their 'redox' potential expresed in volts.  It took a trip to Wiki to figure out why he is listing half-reactions and why that stuff is expressed in volts to begin with; and I never could fathom if the scale was useful or how common any of those reactions are.  Frustrating.

My big takeaway from this book is an appreciation of how complicated the winemaker's process can be.  I used to think of it as a tightrope act between, say, acid and flab, tannin and lack of structure, fruit and barrel characteristics, etc.  But it's more of a dance on a tightrope.  For example, when you start fermentation, every strain of yeast you might select works best under different conditions, conditions you cannot necessarily control.  If it's out of its sweet spot, that yeast will start producing nasty byproducts.  If it is in its sweet spot, it still might produce nasty flavors depending on all sorts of chemical factors.  So dance, motherf*%ker, and remember that nitrogen is bad in the vineyard, but vital in the fermentation tank!

Hudelson also does a great job explaining two issues in winemaking that have been eluding me, the issue of volatile acidity and the play between total acidity and pH.

Total acid is the measure all all the fixed (not volatile) acid in a wine. pH is the measure of the strength of thse acids. We don't really taste the power of acids as much as how much is there, so TA is important. A wine with 5 grams per liter of acid is fat and flabby, and at 9 grams per liter it is very sharp. pH is important for the stability of wine. 4.0 is very unstable and 3.0 is very stable.

Volatile Acidity is acid that is in gasseous form at room temperature.  All wine has a bit as a byproduct of fermentation, usually below the threshold of human perception (700mg/l).  It can seem like consumers are detecting more and more, but that isn't necessarily true.  Screwcaps and other modern closures are preventing VA from exchanging out of the wine as they would in semi-permeable cork.  So just decant or swish your glass and it'll go away.  In my classes, VA got caught up in conversations of sulfur compounds that smell similar and are indeed on the rise.  Also VA can convert to vinegar.

Consider that a pH falls, production of VA in the form of acetic acid rises.  If a high level of alcohol is present, that will convert to ethyl acetate...vinegar.  Lots of new world wines love the profile of low acids because they want a generous rich wine.  They are also picking their grapes later and later to get the most color and fruit flavors.  But picking late means more sugars which translate to more alcohol - vinegar city.

Hudelson also tells us how to get rid of vinegar precursors, but that is really really esoteric, and I think you get the idea.  Lots of information, much of it not useful to all but the hardcore.

Friday, September 2, 2011

The $500 Napa Cabernet

Way back when I was still a policy wonk and wine was just a hobby, I put my name on the waiting lists for all the highly allocated wines I could think of.  Wines like Kistler, Sine Qua Non, Sea Smoke, Screaming Eagle, you know what I mean.  I figured someday I might be able to afford such things, or even be able to flip a few for a quick profit.

Instead of waiting years, I got onto almost all of them when the economy tanked in 2008.  This is one of the reasons I have 500 bottles of wine and no children.  Well the grandaddy of them all came knocking this week, Harlan Estates.  I've purchased his second wine before and several of his wines under the Bond label, but this time, the offer was for a bottle of Harlan Estate 2009.  The cost, $500.

Now this is not a post to bash Bill Harlan and his wines; I am quite a fan.  Consider the words of Mr. Robert Parker Junior, "Harlan Estate might be the single most profound red wine made not just in California, but in the world."  And five hundred bucks for one of the top bottles in the world doesn't seem out of profile when you consider that first growth bordeaux runs $1000 to $1500.  Also consider that my $500 offer is a significant discount from the 'street' price of Harlan, usually between $600 and $900.

But I can't do it.  I cannot order one this year, or probably next.  For those reading, my birthday is coming up...  The amount of money got me thinking about cultish California producers I have spent money on this year.  There are many many options for someone willing to shell out $100 for a Napa Cab, and some really incredible wine.  If I had five hundred bucks, I think I'd buy these five bottles instead of just one Harlan...

Pahlmeyer Proprietary Red 2007
Helen Turley was the wine maker at Pahlmeyer when I started drinking the 1994 vintage.  Her onetime assistant Erin Green now leads the cellar and it just seems to get better and better.  BTW, she makes awesome Merlot and Pinot Noir for the Pahlmeyers too.  The tannins are super-rich and fine grained.  The flavors are, of course, full of fruit, but also minerals of excellent complexity.  Parker and others rain praise on Pahlmeyer, and I cannot believe it isn't more expensive.

Neal Family Vineyards Rutherford Dust Cabernet Sauvignon 2006
I first encountered Neal Cabernet in its basic Napa bottling, and I thought it was solid, but only one amongst many.  Once I tried their single vineyard offerings, however, I knew I had found something special.  My favorite is named Rutherford Dust, after the alluvial soil of the benchland.  Neal eschews any notion that their wine should be drunk early; they are just now releasing their 2006 and the 2005 bottling is still closed and monolithic.  Given time, however, it turns into liquid velvet.

Harris Estate Vineyards Lakeview Cabernet 2008
One of the greatest compliments you can get as a chef is for a person to spend a ton of money at your place, and then thank you for it.  On a trip to Napa a few years ago, the manager of the Bounty Hunter recommended I make the trip way up in the hills above Calistoga to visit Harris.  From the name, I was expecting a corporate setup with tasting room, but ended up sitting in Mike Harris' living room, drinking wine and petting his dog, Jake.  Then I spent a ton of money on his wine and thanked him for letting me do so.  The wines are opulent and powerful, full of pure dark fruit and brambly tannins.

Nickel & Nickel Rock Cairn Cabernet 2008
Nickel & Nickel is the 'single vineyard sites only' project of Far Niente.  If you visit the winery, they actually have boxes of dirt you can sniff from each of their projects.  And they are pretty serious about it, making over a dozen distinct bottlings from Napa. Rock Cairn is sourced from the southern edge of Oakville on a late ripening Western exposure.  It's a very dark wine, full of black cherries, old time red licorice (the kind they used to make with molasses), and tea.  It's approachable young, but has great acid and tannin for aging.

Heitz Cellars Martha's Vineyard Cabernet 2006
In 1999, Wine Spectator magazine named the 1974 vintage of Heitz Martha's Vineyard the greatest wine of the 20th Century.  Certainly one of the most storied sites in Napa, or anywhere else, Martha's vineyard is back after a long replanting project necessitated by phylloxera.  The minty, chocolaty Cabernet is loaded with glycerine and ages like Helen Mirren.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Book Report - The Making of a Great Wine: Gaja & Sori San Lorenzo

Really an excellent book for all levels of knowledge and interest.  Many books on winemaking are mired in theoreticals and what ifs.  And that isn't a bad thing if you are trying to learn all you can about every decision point possible.  But it can be overwhelming at times.  Just wait for my review of "General Viticulture!"  In our book for today, however, Edward Steinberg has taken the welcome approach of narrowing his focus to one vineyard and one harvest that would ultimately produce the 1998 Gaja Sori San Lorenzo Barbaresco.

For those who have not tasted Nebbiolo from the Piedmont, go and try it.  The color is light, which can deceive a newcomer into thinking the wine is medium or even lightweight.  The nose is redolent of rose petals, raspberries, tar, black tea and spices.  Tasting will blow you away with a wall of puckering tannin unless you choose a wine that's well aged, the wines are HUGE!  They are expensive (good ones start at $50), and cellar for decades.  I've never tried the particular wine from Steinberg's book, it goes for between $450 and $600 at auction, but I know and love the type.

Read and you will fall in love with the uniqueness of Piedmont, its grapes, land and producers.  Along the way, Steinberg absolutely packs the book with knowledge of enology and viticulture.  We learn about Nebbiolo's unfortunate vigor, which bacteria grows where and when, and why Gaja plants straight up and down the hillside instead of across.  Esoteric details are really brought to life and his characters are colorful and eager to tell their stories.  We visit an oak auction with the guy who provides the staves for Gaja's barrels, his cork producer, many of his vineyard hands, even his chemist.

If you truly want to immerse yourself in a sense of place and time, and you think discussions of yeast strains are interesting, this book is for you.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Book Report - The Vintner's Apprentice

Some time ago, I took a couple of courses in air conditioning repair.  My theory was to save the restaurant money by doing simple things myself instead of calling the $85/hour crew whenever a drain got clogged or an air filter needed changing.  Anyway, the bulk of HVAC repair turned out to concentrate on electrical systems, and so I took a week or so to learn how to read circuit diagrams. They were fairly straightforward and easy to understand.

On the first day of  actual repair, however, this is what I saw instead of a simple diagram:

And I suspect that phenomena is at work as I learn about viticulture (growing grapes) and enology (making wine).  I am reading about five of these books at once, so as I write the reviews, take them with a grain of salt and remember this metaphor.  I have no experience in actually tending vines or making wine, so what I think of as good writing and clever useful insight may well be a load of crap once you reach the crushpad.

That being said, Vintner's Apprentice was quite good and a more entertaining treatment of the subject than I have seen.  It approaches the basic steps of growing grapes and turning them into wine through a series of interviews with famous and important wine people.  There are many pictures.  The book itself is gorgeous.  It is geared towards an enthusiastic amateur lover of wine, and instead of providing knowledge, it tends to lay out the land and ask the pertinent questions without answering them.  There is a good framework here for more study, it is worth checking out.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Calling Ceasar Chavez

I just read a very disturbing report from Human Rights Watch concerning the conditions of grape farmers in South Africa.  The 111 page report details workers being housed in pig stys and outhouses, spraying pestacides without safety gear, and being harassed and threatened when they ask for more.  A shortage of state inspectors and a rule providing advance notice of inspection work against amelioration.  The full report is available at  I will post updates and responses from the SA wine industry.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Road Trip!

A break in the action at work left me with a weekday off and an unquenchable yearning to leave the environs of Washington DC.  Those of you who know that I used to be a lobbyist are familiar with my bipolar swings of desperately missing politics and wearily hating this city and all it stands for.  Thus it was that I traveled to the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains for a day trip, in search of Chenin Blanc.

No other white wine so confounds me during blind tasting as Chenin Blanc.  I usually guess that it's a lightly wooded Chardonnay, a lower acid Riesling, or something nondescript.  I am fond, however, of thinking it's just my lack of experience with the grape and not a hole in my palate that is to blame.  So I have been gathering lots and lots of examples of Chenin for a grand tasting sometime in the early autumn.

The wine I was looking for is from the Breede River Valley in South Africa.  Most of what we get here is the States is from the coastal regions of SA, and Breede is right behind that, with a more continental climate.

 It is also stunningly gorgeous.

Alas, I didn't find the bottle I was looking for; which sucks because the WSET loves Chenin and South Africa and London is lousy with Breede River examples.  I did, however, find a few other gems - A Walla Walla Chenin, One from Baja Mexico, and ...wait for it...India.  I sorta knew on some level that they made wine in India, but it never occured to me that they export the stuff.  Stay tuned for tasting notes from the gala event.  And enjoy a few pics from the trip!

 Pink Mercedes!

The Blue Ridge

Winchester, VA

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Custom Made Knife

A non-wine interlude from a professional chef. I have been on the waiting list to buy a Bob Kramer custom knive for 5 years. Kramer is a brilliant and creative master knife maker, and the only certified master who specializes in kitchen knives. He's pretty darn famous right now, having three exclusive lines of knives at Sur la Table and Williams Sonoma from Henckles and Shun.

The custom stuff is incredible, and incredibly expensive. But yesterday I received my knife. The specs were mine, but the artistry is all Kramer. Check this out.

Quite simply the most gorgeous knife ever.  I was tempted to just hang it on the wall, but instead I took it to work to put her through her paces.  The shape is a Japanese kiritsuke, really a slicer.  I used it to break down an 80-pound halibut, a bunch of salmon, and a tuna loin.  It was like butter.  And I'm a harsh critic to begin with - all of my knives are very high quality, most Suisin and Masanobu.  I regularly have arguments with my cooks about which powdered steel alloy makes the best core material...I'm a knife snob.

If you love cutlery and can wait five years, go ahead and put yourself on the waiting list.  You can spend that time learning how to use and care for it.