Failure by design: awards, points and medals for wine

There are a hand full of topics always coming up at some point if a wine person talks to somebody not familiar with all the secrets of wine culture and history: tasting and rating. I know that very well. Being the son of a winemaker I always was that wine person having to defend the purpose of secret language and quality rankings.

Wine glasses (slack12 / flickr)

Oh do I remember the jokes about the aroma wheel which was lying around somewhere in our house when my teenage friends visited me. Flavors of polecat and concrete? Seriously? I had no clue about aromas so I normally smiled feeling slightly embarrassed and emptied my glass quickly. Knowing nothing about aromas I also didn’t know that this topic is not an easy one at all: firstly not every wine (by far!) comes with something that’s not just “red fruits” and secondly it’s a skill that needs loads of practice (although I’ll never become a master having an average tongue). It’s the same with everything you are not familiar with: it all looks the same and you need to practice differentiating. If it’s engine sounds, bird chirps or wine tastes.

One thing I love so much about natural wine – organic wine without additives – is the varieties of aromas showing up clearly and recognisably. My favorite currently is salami taste (often found in natural reds) which I’m sure is considered being a mistake in conventional winemaking. And this is one kind of quality.
So after all the years coming back to become a winemaker myself I’d smile about some oddities of the aroma wheel knowing that many taste names are more representatives of tastes found in wine. Like cat pee. Or a ladybird taint. On the other hand science knows a lot about the hundreds of aromas coming together in (more or less) complex wines making it the most interesting beverage in the world.

62:365 - Taster Testings (Nomadic Lass / flickr)

So once I got my conversations to pass this topic it normally came and comes to medals, points and prices. Why the hell should I pay five or ten times more for some wine if wine critics with perfectly trained taste buds can’t differentiate cheaply produced dishwater from thoroughly nurtured deliciousness? I know many stories about wines being rejected several times from being sold as Qualitätswein and with the last try suddenly getting approved with honors and a medal. A friend sent me a link to an article at the Guardian website talking about a study published in the Journal of Wine Economics. It says:

Results from the first four years of the experiment, published in the Journal of Wine Economics, showed a typical judge’s scores varied by plus or minus four points over the three blind tastings. A wine deemed to be a good 90 would be rated as an acceptable 86 by the same judge minutes later and then an excellent 94.

The article quotes more studies with similar results. It’s crystal clear that psychology has an enormous impact on the rank. How was it presented? What did other people say? What was the mood of the taster? How was the environment like? And still so many wine experts deeply believe in their ability to judge quality. Although science shows they basically can’t. Why? I think there is more than science to think about here. There is a deeply philosophical question underneath the surface: Is there something like good or bad for taste?

81st Academy Awards Ceremony (BDS2006 / Wikimedia)

Sure, there are awards for artists in all categories. The Oscars, the Pulitzer, the Emmys. And there are many artists questioning them. But compared to wine it’s hard to test if judges would rate a movie, song or book differently as blind tasting is not an option. So from that perspective you could argue that some kind of conventions what’s well made and innovative should enable judges to rank within that frame. But they still can’t do it very well. Why?

I have one suspicion. Think about how wines are crafted today. Essentially chemistry does not only allow you to add and modify flavors (depending on the laws of the country) but to even select specific tastes and remove them. There are recipes for wine. Bertrand Celce wrote an impressing post on his excellent blog a while back with a remarkable list of ingredients used to design wines. I quote a few examples:

  • To design a wine tasting like a bottle aged Chardonnay Chr Hansen recommends to “inoculate juice in tank with PreludeTM at 25g/hL dosage, along with standard nutrient regime. Total SO2<30ppm. At 5-6% Ethanol inoculate must with your preferred strain of Saccharomyces cerevisiae to manage AF”. As a first step.
  • Martin Vialatte Oenologie recommends adding it’s product Carbine T which “removes the color and improves the organoleptic characters. After treatment, musts or `vins de taille´ are free of the herbaceous characters generated by harsh grape processing and are blending products of quality.”
  • And Scott Laboratories offers Flashgum R Liquide, “a 25% gum arabic preparation which offers both colloidal protection and the perception of sweet and soft characters on the palate. Gum arabic products can help reduce the risk of colloidal deposits in the bottle in wines bottled without filtration. Natural polysaccharides reduce astringency and increase feelings of volume and fullness in the mouth. Flashgum R Liquide can provide color protection in rosé and fruit wines.”

Chemicals (Andy Schultz / flickr)

You see the problem? The traditional aesthetic conventions of ranking wine by quality are based on a winemaker doing the best possible work in the vineyard and being most careful in the cellar. But with chemistry being used it’s like a competition where everybody cheats. What makes the competition a joke.
If wine can be designed – at least theoretically – judges should judge the work of a creative chemist rather than a traditional winemaker. It probably would be more honest.

So what’s the solution? I think it’s going back to producing wine without additives and intervention. Producing transparently, communicating when something had to be aded to save the wine from becoming vinegar and giving the wine it’s individual story. Which makes the value of the wine way more clear to me than some Parker points. And as we start making our first natural wine this autumn: award applications are not in the marketing plan.

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