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Monday Manifestos
Better Wine Through Chemistry

By Charles Olken

Consider my headline above. Now, consider this headline appearing in the well-regarded blog, 1WineDude. “California Winemakers Routinely Use Formulas To Achieve Certain Scores”.

Is one more cynical than the other? Is any use of forces outside of nature in winemaking cynical in the first place?

We have been over this ground before, of course, although in this case, the topic is not “natural winemaking” but intentional intervention in the winemaking process in order to produce wines of a desired color, with a desired level of tannin and desired levels of virtually anything and everything else measurable.

I don’t know about you, but it seems to me that winemakers have forever had the goal of making wine in whatever image is in their heads. There is no way, for example, that wineries using the same fruit could come out with quite different wines save for one of them being incompetent (always possible if you sit in my seat and taste hundreds of wine per month) or each having different views of what they want by way of style.

Yet my friend and family member (as soon as the adoption papers go through—sorry, bad in-joke between Joe Roberts—the Wine Dude—and myself) seemingly sees attempts to achieve a given style to be a cynical interaction between grape and man. Consider the following quote: “I feel like the wine world just told me to go ‘f . . . .’ myself”.

No, Joe, the wine world did not do that any more than the wineries that leave residual sugar in their Chardonnays have told you to do that. Winemakers can, and do, attempt at times to make wines that favor a particular style that they think will be well-received by critics and the buying public. That, after all, is the job that many of them have been hired to do. Is it wrong for a winery to want to make wine that the world will like? Since when?

The problem with this analysis is that no matter how hard some folks try, they just do not get it right. And then there are the folks who seem rarely to get it wrong. Maybe a few of them have a chemical formulas against which they work, but if someone is trying to suggest that Paul Hobbs and Paul Draper and Joel Peterson and Cathy Corison are all working towards the same set of results, then they have missed the point. Each of those wildly successful, rightfully revered winemakers comes to the winery with a particular set of ideals, and each knows how to choose the grapes and make the resulting wines in manners which do, in fact, earn them high rankings.

But, let’s not limit our discussions to winemakers with giant reputations and ratings of the same proportion. Let’s look, instead, at Jeff Cohn of JC Cellars and Mike Dash of Dash Cellars. These good friends occupy the same urban winery in downtown Oakland. One makes bold, high extract wines and one is the darling of the new paradigm set who seek greater restraint and less pushy wines. Each of these gentlemen is successful because he knows what he wants and he is able to achieve it.

Yes, there are wineries that change their focus in the belief that greater success awaits them. Some may get to the desired rating levels, but most do not for a couple of simple reasons worth restating. Each winemaker has his or her own competence level, and each must work with the grapes no matter what formula they try to employ or what style they hope to achieve.

And then there is this. My favorite pork chop in my long experience as a fan of that dish was served to me at the somewhat funky, wholly forward-looking and very successful restaurant, Le Pigeon, in Portland, Oregon. It had been cooked three ways (sous vide, baked, finished over a hot flame to caramelize the edges). That kind of intervention is called a recipe. I recently had a very complicated and absolutely delicious and memorable “potato and egg soup” at Commis (Michelin two-stars—or do they call the “puffs”) in Oakland. The chef did not get to the point of making this exquisite, never-to-be forgotten dish without a concept in mind—a recipe.

Why then do we even argue about desired styles and how to get there—other than to require that whatever is done not be bad for us or the planet? Formulas? Recipes? I am all for them if they succeed and do not give us all bellyaches.


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by Charlie Olken
Posted on:10/1/2013 10:26:04 AM

Make that Mike Dashe of Dashe Cellars. My bad. I do know better.

by Christie Luna
Posted on:10/4/2013 8:37:58 AM

I just read your "Better Wine through Chemistry" article and give you props for the clarity you shine on the subject that, all too often, becomes a point of contention at many of the tastings I attend.  Cheers from your Oklahoma City friend!

I'll Take My Potato and Eggs Over Easy
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:10/4/2013 9:08:06 AM

Hi Christie--

Thanks for your note. When all is said and done, there are only two standards that matter: Does the wine appeal and is there something in its making or consumption that is problematic.

All the rest of the discussion about recipe, about formulaic winemaking, about natural winemaking (which is rigidly formulaic, by the way) is just background music.

Looking forward to seeing you again when you are out this way.


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