Doing The Numbers

I was at the 2017 Wine Business Monthly ‘IQ’ (Innovation and Quality) event at Charles Krug in Napa Valley the other day.  It is a fascinating glimpse behind the curtain of how wine is made, and what those who make it, think about.  For those of us who are informed consumers, attending this event is like being an atheist at a Freemason Lodge.  Even when you don’t know what’s going on, you feast your eyes on the secret rituals being performed right in front of you. In the world of the public there is the bottle, label, brand name, price point, the varietal, and maybe a wine review. But in the cavernous halls of Charles Krug you can hear wild tales of bound anthocyanins, the oxygen transmission rates of corks, DNA amplification, how to flip a tannin molecule, do a blind tasting comparison on the oxygen permeability of screw cap wines, compare Argentinian Malbec clonal selections, and taste the Comparison of Juice Clarification techniques (Cold Settling vs. Flotation) on the Chemical and Sensory Aspects of Wine – to mention but a few topics.  (There were more than 30 trials provided by generous wineries around the main tent in addition to the sessions.)  It was an Aladdin’s Cave of Wine Geekery. 

Most of this all comes with data, lots and lots of data. Numbers fall like rain on a landscape already sodden and saturated with data. But this is not uncommon in any industry. From baseball to the financial markets we live with and understand the benefits of data.  What makes wine different is the ‘aw shucks’ factor.  The heavily promoted idea in the outside world that those little berries hop on up into the tanks of their own free will and the wine just makes itself. Every wine story teller like me, with the complicit assistance of the winemaking team, is waxing on about ‘minimalist intervention’ and how we simply guide the vineyard and its fruit through the process while looking on in admiration.  It’s like those wines are all gifted little children that seem to know exactly what they want to be when they grow up. 

The keynote speaker was Clark Smith.  I don’t know him from Adam but I thought he was great.  He’s known for his early work adjusting alcohol using reverse osmosis.  Essentially you can move the alcohol content around until you find the sweet spot for that wine. Mr. Smith mentioned in his introduction that, “Almost half the wine in the United States is alcohol adjusted.”  What, really… now that was interesting.  Half the wine in America has had a very easy to comprehend human manipulation after the wine has ‘made itself.’  Then sessions began and the numbers kept coming.  This however is not a critique of numbers.  The rigorous pursuit of new information, understanding, and new possibilities, even if just to confirm your current preferences, is admirable and useful.  We heard, for instance, that cork taint or ‘corked’ corks have been reduced by 96% since 2001.  This could not happen without analysis, the numbers, and the human will to affect change. 

What was curious to an outside observer, was the denial by multiple speakers that they “made wine by the numbers.”  Quite clearly, they do, but what’s so wrong about that?   “Grandma never looked at her recipe book and her pies were amazing.”  Is it that we might defile the idea of our product being “natural?” Will all the numbers and cleverness scorch the romance and snatch away the mantle we have placed on winemaking shoulders?  We are the ones who bestowed upon them the divinity of the ideal agrarian lifestyle.  The last thoughts on our dilemma go to quirky Mr. Smith. “You could have all been well paid doctors, that’s why I love you all.” and “It’s ridiculous fiction that wine makes itself! Why keep your light under a bushel?”

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