They’re More Like Guidelines

CaptainJackIf you have read the About page on Oenophily, you know that I have some issues with wine ratings. Briefly stated, I think that they are both the beginning and end of too many people’s buying decision process. Wine just isn’t that simple and to find the most satisfying ones it’s necessary to look a little more deeply into the bottle.

I’m not the only one who sees this. In A Sauvignon Blanc tasting that raises questions about point scores, Steve Heimoff writes about the shortcomings of wine ratings from the reviewer perspective. During a blind tasting, he finds a wine he really likes. Though the wine achieves a good score, it is still in the bottom half of those reviewed. This result leads him to wonder: does the 100-point scale truly measure what is important in wine?

I like Steve’s post a lot. (If you haven’t already, go read it!) To my thinking, it highlights both the good side and the bad side of ratings. They serve a useful function, providing information about wine quality and similarity to a certain flavor profile. On the other hand, that perfect profile is highly specific and it won’t always match our personal tastes or the food we are eating.

Whether it’s wine ratings, rules about serving temperatures (e.g. reds at room temperature, whites chilled), or pairings (always serve white wines with fish), people are always trying to simplify wine. These things are useful, but they don’t fit every situation. After all, the final arbiter is what’s going on in your mouth. Or, as Elizabeth Swann might say, “Hang the ratings, and hang the rules. They’re more like guidelines anyway.”

Fear of Wine

In writing last week about two new wine gadgets currently under development, I ended up wondering: who do these really help? Though I had some doubts about the usefulness of these products, there was no question in my mind about who their creators thought they were for. Consider, for example, this excerpt from one website:

“The wine aisle is long and scary; the beer and liquor aisles aren’t. Wine is stuck in a 750mL glass bottle that makes its contents inaccessible unless you commit to drinking (or dumping out) the whole thing. It feels like you need to take a class to understand what temperature your wine should be served at or what food it should be paired with.”

Clearly, these people are not buying beer in the same places I am- my local store carries well over 400 different brews! However, dubious shopping comparisons aside, the intended target for these words is plain to see: people who are afraid of wine. Those of us in the industry may like to ponder the demographics behind why two companies believe this is a good time to launch a product targeted at people with oenophobia, but a better question for all of us might be where does the fear come from in the first place?

OK, sure, wine is complicated if you want to get into all the details. However, the same can be said about Game of Thrones, and I don’t see anyone using that as a reason to miss Sunday’s season opener. Of course not. Understanding all that complexity may be fun, but it isn’t really required to enjoy either the wine or the show (and, frankly, it probably matters a whole lot more for the latter).

So… maybe it’s not the complexity, or the wine, that people are afraid of. Perhaps it is their wine loving friends. After all, we can get pretty carried away talking about all those details and nuances, quickly leaving a newcomer, if you will, racked off in the lees.

I was recently guilty of this myself. My brother asked for some advice on wine pairing and I gave him a response that was, um, overly complete. Having found sibling advice unhelpful, he turned to the staff at his preferred store and received a recommendation that was trendy, but one that also changed his original food plan. Because I got bogged down in the details and didn’t help him with what he really wanted to know, I lost an opportunity to introduce him to one of my favorite flavor pairings.

Just as a scriptwriter doesn’t try to put everything about the show into a single episode, we need to remember that we can’t cram all our wine knowledge into the tasting of a single bottle. And while our friends can go binge watch 5 seasons of Game of Thrones to catch up with us concerning the show, the same approach doesn’t work with wine. Not at all. If we can just keep these things in mind as we share our passion, perhaps we can conquer Fear of Wine and recruit new allies in our adventures.

Perhaps Not Such a Great Gift Idea

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas. Oh, no, not to those of us enjoying the first warm days of spring and looking forward to summer. But for a consumer products company that needs to get something manufactured, boxed, shipped, and in the hands of customers by December 24th, Santa is at the door. Now.

Which explains why pre-order opportunities for pricey new gadgets are showing up on crowd-funding websites. This year, oenophiles (and their friends) are being enticed by not one, but two products promising better wine through technology: Kuvée: The Smart Wine Bottle that Keeps Wine Fresh, and Somm by SYNEK (pronounced “cynic”), A Wine Dispenser That Learns Your Palate.

Of the two, Kuvée has the far more elegant design. It is a wine bottle size device (slightly taller) with a built-in color touchscreen and wifi. The wine comes in 750ml aluminum bottles that are inserted into the bottom of the unit. Kuvée has partnered with several well-known wineries to deliver branded wines in its proprietary format, and they advertise that they will have 48 wines available when the product launches.

The aluminum bottles have RFID chips so when you insert one into Kuvée, it knows what wine it has and can display the wine label on the screen. Touch the screen and you can get more information about the wine. You can also provide feedback and order wines through the touch screen. To pour, just lift and tip Kuvée like you would a wine bottle. There’s a valve system inside that lets the wine out while preventing air from getting it.

Somm is a counter-top appliance with built-in pumping, refrigeration, and aeration systems. On the front, it has a pouring handle, a spout, and a door that provides access for inserting the 2.25 liter wine container called a “Sylo”. The wines have private label names as SYNEK purchases in bulk and fills the Sylos themselves. Somm’s Kickstarter page announces “100’s of wines available” though the small print says they will be launching with just 30.

Like the Kuvée, Somm recognizes which wine has been inserted it. One of the system’s more interesting innovations is that it uses this information to adjust the temperature and aeration settings to match the wine. Instead of a touchscreen, SYNEK provides an app for your smartphone or tablet for interacting with Somm. The apps will display information about the wine in the unit, allow you to rate it, and help you order more wine.

Though at first glance, these appear to be rather different products, both are being sold on the same value propositions:

1) to keep your wine fresh for 30 days after opening
2) to learn your preferences and help you select new wines

I have no doubts they can deliver. The technology to keep oxygen out of wine and extend its life after opening has been around for a quite a while; after all, it’s used inside box wines. (And before complaining about “that swill”, be aware that the Wine Spectator has rated some box wines as high as 89 points). Recommending new wines based on what you’ve liked in the past is equally straight forward.

The big limitation here is the wines themselves. Even if both systems eventually do have hundreds of wines, that’s just a small fraction of the thousands of wines available worldwide. It’s not enough diversity to satisfy the true wine lover or to educate the new aficionado.

They come in proprietary containers, so you can’t just pop into the store to buy some more. You have to order the wines for these things in advance. To support hundreds of wines, each device will need thousands upon thousands of customers. Active customers. If they don’t achieve a large enough user base, there is a chance that each will be stuck with its small starter set of wines. Even worse, perhaps no wine if there aren’t enough sales to support the special containers. A risk that is increased by the fact that there are competing systems.

Finally, while I’m sure either system can deliver a decent glass of wine, I have serious doubts about ever getting a great glass of wine. Too many of those require aging in a container that permits slow aeration, something the anti-oxidation designs of Somm and Kuvée are specifically designed to prevent. (Nor do I see premier providers rushing to embrace these units.)

I think there are really interesting things going on with each of these systems. If they worked with any bottle instead of the proprietary containers available from each supplier (not a simple request, I understand), they would be a lot more exciting. As it is, I see a shortage of utility and a lot of limitations.

So, in the end, we are left with the question: Who do Somm or Kuvée really help? If your primary goal is to be able to have just a glass or two of wine a day without the rest going bad, there are better choices: either find one of the good box wines or invest in one of the wine preservation products that will work with any wine. On the other hand, if the goal is to learn more about wine, you will quickly run up against the limits of either Somm’s or Kuvée’s wine selection. Moreover, with the Somm you won’t even know who produced the wine, a further impediment to learning.

Bottom line? If you’re interested enough in one of these for yourself to plop down $200 (the current going pre-buy price for either) now for delivery in the fall, go for it. Hundreds of other people have. But if you are thinking of getting one as a gift… er… maybe your friend would prefer the equivalent value in wine?

Wood or Steel- A Matter of Style

Champagne uncorking photographed with a high speed air-gap flash
Photo by Niels Noordhoek, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons (click for details)

As discussed in my recently completed Wine and Woods series of posts, the decisions made in aging wine can have a profound effect on its aroma, taste, and feel. In most cases, the winemaker’s job is to use the aging process to deliver the best possible wine from the vintage in the barrels. With champagne the goal is a little different: steer the development of the wines to allow the brand a consistent sensory profile, called house style, year after year.

A recent article on, A debate from Champagne’s sensual parliament, explores the roles that wood and steel aging play in defining and realizing house style. Author Andrew Jefford also includes tasting notes from six champagnes, illustrating how the different choices manifest in the glass.

Wine and Wood (Part 4)

As fabulous as wooden barrels are for aging wines, they have one tremendous drawback: expense. They are costly to buy and difficult to clean. The wood will contribute aromas and flavors to wine for only one or two aging cycles, necessitating frequent replacement for many styles of wine. Taken altogether, the expenses of using wood barrels can add dollars per bottle to the cost of producing wine.

There is a barrel material that has none of these problems– stainless steel. Stainless steel containers are cheaper to produce than wood, easier to clean, require far less maintenance, and last virtually forever. They are also completely non-reactive and non-porous, adding nothing to the flavor or mouthfeel of a wine. For all these reasons and more, stainless steel is widely used for fermentation, even for wines that will be aged in wood barrels. The problem comes after that….

Left to their own devices, wines matures in stainless steel tend to have bright fruit flavors and a crisp mouthfeel. This is a style that some prefer, especially for lighter wines, but it also lacks the depth and complexity that wine lovers have come to expect for so many kinds of wine.1 To be able to take advantage of the cost savings offered by aging in stainless steel, winemakers have had to find ways to reproduce the sensory characteristics derived from wood barrels in their production processes.

One of these techniques, called micro-oxygenation, is the controlled release of small amounts of oxygen into wine through a ceramic disk placed at the bottom of the barrel or tank. The ceramic breaks up the oxygen into microscopic bubbles that are quickly absorbed by the wine.

Originally developed in southwestern France during the early 1990s to speed the maturation of wines based on the highly tannic Tannat grape, micro-oxygenation has been adapted for a wide variety of vinifcation uses, including helping wines maturing in stainless steel to develop in a manner similar to wooden barrels. For this purpose, “small amounts” means somewhere around 1 milliliter of oxygen per liter of wine per month! A detailed discussion on micro-oxygenation can be found it Duane Alexander Blaauw’s dissertation Micro-Oxygenation in Contemporary Winemaking on the Cape Wine Academy website.

With micro-oxidation imitating the slow infusion of air through wood barrel walls, the other part of the equation is incorporating wood derived aromas, flavors, and mouthfeel enhancements into wine being aged in stainless steel. This is commonly done by putting pieces of toasted wood in with the wine.

There are several advantages to this approach. While the pieces of wood interact with the wine in much the same way as barrel staves, they are much cheaper to produce as they don’t require precise shaping or bending and don’t have to be watertight. Putting the wood into the wine means that both sides (as well as the edges) are in contact with the wine, so that 100% of the wood surface area is used (as opposed to about 40% in a barrel). Lastly, the problem of cleaning the wood is avoided because the inserts are discarded after use.

The method that most closely mimics barrel aging is mounting long planks of toasted wood inside the stainless steel container. Lower-cost options include the use of shorter boards, wood cubes or chips, wood shavings, and even wood powder or sawdust. Smaller pieces tend to contribute aromas and flavors faster than larger ones, a fact that winemakers can use to reduce the production time of wine, albeit at the expense of the advantages that come from longer aging.

When combined with micro-oxygenation, the results of the plank technique have generally been good and it is widely considered a viable alternative for producing high-quality mid-priced wines. Similarly, wood cubes and wood chips can work well in younger wines. A 2011 study2 showed little difference in consumer preference for young wines aged for 6 months in oak barrels versus 6 months in stainless with oak chips added for the last month. (In fact, the oak chip wines scored higher than the barrel aged ones, though the difference was not statistically significant.) Wood shavings and wood powders are generally considered less effective than the larger pieces of wood but do impart some wood character at a low cost and with minimal contact time.

One final method for adding wood flavors and aromas to wine is the use of wood extract. Made by soaking oak chips in high-proof alcohol, extract tends to be harsh but can provide an instant infusion of wood-like character into a wine. (A common use for extract is to fine tune the flavor of inexpensive wines after dosing with wood powder and filtering.) It’s quick and cheap, and that’s probably all that can be said for it.

The general consensus in the industry is that when wood character is desired, the aging of wine in wooden barrels yields the best wines. However, most will also agree that when used to emulate (and perhaps gently accelerate) traditional methods, the techniques discussed above are capable of producing good wines at lower cost. However, as the focus shifts from emulation at a reduced cost to imitation at the lowest possible cost, the results are predictably of lower quality.

1 For those who have been following this series, it should come as no surprise that this difference in flavors has resulted in yet another style of wine. After aging part of the wine with wood and part in stainless steel, the two are blended back together. The resulting wine can have a mixture of the bright fruit flavors coming from the stainless portion and the rich mellow notes from the wood.

2 Pérez-Magariño, S., Ortega-Heras, M., and González-Sanjosé, M.L. 2011. Wine consumption habits and consumer preferences between wines aged in barrels or with chips. Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture 91: 943-949.