Tragon’s new closures report, transparency, and the marketing vs. science clash

Tragon, a consumer sensory testing firm based in San Francisco, just released the fourth installment of a study into how consumers feel about natural cork versus screw caps. Tragon conducted surveys in 2004, 2007, 2011, and 2013. The 2013 report shows that consumers are more accepting of screw caps than they’ve been in the past. Still, the bottom line is the same now as it was in 2004: people prefer natural cork, perceive cork-topped wines as higher quality, and think they’re more appropriate for fancy occasions. Those conclusions held true across the US, Germany, and Australia, though the Aussies see screw caps as being very nearly equal to cork in nearly all settings.

I have no trouble believing that the average wine buyer prefers cork and thinks that it’s classier. Aesthetics, tradition, and familiarity are important. Cork wins on all three accounts. Given the exact same wine under different closures, my experience as a human who interacts with other humans tells me that most wine geeks will choose the screw-capped option, most non-wine geeks the cork.

Here’s where I have a serious problem accepting Tragon’s report. At first glance, their study seems to show that the average-Jessica wine consumer cares more about closure type than where the wine came from or what variety it is. Really?

Maybe lots of people (non-locavore people) don’t look at country-of-origin because they just see the brand and label design without reading the fine print. But closure is more important than whether the wine is white or red? This is hard to believe. Do people go to the store saying “I’m looking for a wine with a cork” or “I’m looking for a wine with a screw cap” more often than “I’m looking for a red?”

It took me a few reads to realize that the problem is probably with how the survey questions were worded** The summary report says that closure beat out country of origin and color in “character importance.” That tells us nothing about what question consumers were actually asked, but let’s imagine that the survey item was something along the lines of “How important are the following characteristics in terms of telling  you about a wine’s quality? Rank in order of importance.”

Whether a wine is red or white isn’t at all important in telling me about its quality. Red wines aren’t always better than whites or vice-versa. Duh. Similarly, for country of origin, a wine from California or Italy or New Zealand can be either very high quality or very low quality; not helpful. But if you show average-Jessica wine consumer two identical bottles, one corked and one screw capped, she’ll identify the corked one as higher-quality.

Nomacorc, makers of the leading plastic cork-like closure, sponsored a study in 2012 that found that American consumers only care about closures when they cause a problem: when a wine is corked, when they have trouble opening the bottle, etc. Those results might appear to be at odds with the Tragon study, but I’m not sure they are.  The Nomacorc report says that consumers don’t think much about closures. The Tragon study asks people to think about closures, then asks them whether they think of corks or screw caps as higher-quality. 

I don’t watch basketball. If someone asks me whether I think about basketball, I’m going to say that I only think about basketball when I’m annoyed and inconvenienced by traffic created by a basketball game (anyone who’s been on the Washington State University Pullman campus on a Thursday game night can probably relate). But if someone gives me a list of basketball teams and tells me to rank them in quality, I’ll come up with some kind of list based on what I’ve overheard from friends and news reports.

Something still doesn’t quite compute here. Tragon’s report shows that price was the most important factor in “character importance” — sensibly enough — but that $10-15 wines were ranked higher in “character importance” than $15-20 or wines over $20. I’d expect perception of quality to increase steadily with price, but that’s not what the graph shows. If Tragon shared their methods and their data — if they published the survey itself and graphs documenting actual results instead of just the slick summary — we’d know how to understand their results.

But instead, since this is a private company doing research on behalf of Wine Vision — an industry conference in which Amorim, the world’s largest manufacturer of natural cork, is a major sponsor — we see only the highly polished conclusions. So instead of research that adds to global understanding, we have research that supports Amorim’s market position, just as the Nomacorc study supported Nomacorc’s market position. A shame.

My conclusions? One: surveys are always more complicated than they appear at first glance. Two: how we ask questions has an enormous effect on the answers we get. Three: when private companies don’t share the details of their study methods or data, misunderstanding follows. Four: I’m not sure that science and marketing must always be at odds (though, frankly, I think they probably are) but, when marketing means no transparency, science loses.

**Neither the public summary reports nor the Tragon “research methods” web pages (frustratingly rich in graphics and poor in information) give any details, so all of this is speculative.

On Palate Press: a practical take on biodynamics

My March column on Palate Press, up today, takes a look at the practical side of biodynamics as its happening in Central Otago.

I think that biodynamics can become — well, if not dangerous, then at least unproductive or ill-advised — when it is a proscriptive set of rules that must be followed for specious reasons. But when it’s used as a theory for understanding the farm ecoystem, a tool for listening to the environment and strengthening connections between man and the rest of it, then it’s just good farming. And a lifestyle choice: biodynamics is the way these winemaker-growers want to live. But who wouldn’t want to live surrounded by flowers and bees and good-smelling compost? Looks more appealing than wearing face masks and gloves to protect yourself from the chemicals you’re going to spray on plants that will produce something you’re going to eat.

Find the full article on Palate Press.

Let’s stop a bad thing from happening for a good reason: saving a historic California vineyard

In a classic case of a bad consequence to an otherwise-good idea, 14 acres of Californian vineyard planted in the 1880’s are at risk of being bulldozed in the course of environmental restoration.

The Environmental Impact Report on the Dutch Slough Tidal Marsh Restoration Project, which plans to restore 1178 acres of farmland to tidal marsh around the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, is currently open for comment. To sign a petition asking for a 14-acre exception for the historic Carignane vineyard, go here.

Reasons why this matters:

1. The vines and vineyard represent agricultural techniques (sustainable, non-irrigated farming) valuable as both a historical and a practical lesson.

2. Carignane vines used to be common in California, but are now rare. This vineyard is a living testament to what the pre-prohibition California wine industry looked like.

3. Viticulture researchers look at grape genetics to understand why vines work the way they do and how we can make them work better. Jim Wolpert, the preeminent California viticulturist, argued that these vines represent a unique and useful source of grape genetic material in the letter he wrote to the project directors. Once that material is gone, it’s gone.

The petition organizers have compiled a much longer and more detailed list of reasons to preserve the vineyard.

The Tidal Marsh Restoration Project is, on the whole, a really excellent thing. 1178 acres of fields bordering Oakley that would otherwise have been turned into asphalt and concrete instead being turned into tidal marsh — wetlands where streams and rivers meet the sea — with adjacent “shaded channels, native grasslands, and riparian forests,” according to the project description. If you live in a coastal state, you probably toured a tidal marsh as a school kid; they’re incredible habitats for all manner of birds and fish and amphibians and insects and what-not (your teacher may have called it an estuary; they’re overlapping categories). The Environmental Protection Agency says that tidal marshes even help regulate water flow during drought-flood cycles because they’re big, flattish spaces that tolerate a lot of water rising and falling. Bacteria in marshes improve water quality by processing fertilizer run-off, too.

All of this is great for local native wildlife, increasingly being pushed out — and let’s be blunt about it: killed and threatened with extinction — when developers build fancy high-rises over their habitats.

BUT: 14 acres in the middle of this area-to-be-restored contain some of the oldest vines in California. Those vines are irreplaceable. We can conserve the vines and otherwise proceed with the restoration project.

Saving the vineyard isn’t about the wine industry versus environmentalism. This isn’t about money. It’s about the value of conserving history, about recognizing that historic vineyards merit the same consideration as historic buildings and other monuments, and about not doing irreversible things today that we’re going to regret in the future. I’d encourage you to sign the petition, send a comment to Patty Finfrock at Patricia.Finfrock@water.ca.gov, and help stop a bad thing from happening for a good reason.

Felton Road’s low-tech precision winemaking

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Gareth King at Felton Road

“Precision viticulture” refers to a technology-laden mission to optimize and equalize grape quality at a local level, decreasing variability plot-by-plot, potentially even plant-by-plant. By collecting data on water use, vine vigor, temperature, soil conditions, and other parameters at multiple points across a vineyard, vignerons can understand how different areas of the vineyard are differing in their performance and, consequently, irrigate or fertilize or prune or harvest or what-have-you differently to suit. Affordable GPS systems, high-tech mapping with geographic information systems (GIS), and lots of spiffy little wireless sensors have made all of this possible and even reasonably practical for vineyards within the past several years (Australia’s national Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation has been notably pushing PV adoption in that country). Oddly enough, though, I hadn’t really thought about what an equivalent “precision winemaking” strategy might look like before a week or two ago.

A week or two ago I paid my first visit (of many, I expect) to Central Otago, New Zealand’s most southerly wine region, famous for pinot noir, Wild West-style scenery, and hordes of international backpackers. When I made arrangements to stop by Felton Road, I was warned that I wouldn’t be able to meet Blair Walter, the winemaker, because he planned to rack that day. (Rack = remove wine from one container to another, most often for the purpose of separating it from the lees, the dead yeast cells and other particles that collect at the bottom of the barrel or tank.)  When I learned how he was racking — he found a few minutes to come out and talk in between barrels — the first thing that came to mind was, “gosh, this sounds like precision winemaking.” If precision viticulture is approaching the vineyard on a vine-by-vine basis, then precision winemaking seems as though it should be approaching wine on a barrel-by-barrel basis. Far from technology-laden, though, Walter’s method is simple, elegant, and light on gadgetry.

Their pinot noir is made like this:

1. Crush grapes into stainless steel fermenter tanks. Ferment.

2. Press and transfer wine to barrel. Let wine sit in barrel until February (in Otago, that’s about ten months after harvest).

3. Rack wine off lees, out of barrel and into tanks.

4. Bottle.

Racking happens only once. Walter says that everything that comes out of the barrel during that single racking goes into the bottle. With that single control point before bottling, he sounds fairly obsessive about ensuring sure that he sees everything that comes out of those barrels. Unsurprisingly, he uses a Bulldog Pup, a clever little racking wand that  moves wine by positive displacement instead of active pumping. Positive displacement functionally pushes — “displaces” — the wine out of the barrel by filling the barrel with gas. The barrel is sealed save for a tube pushing the gas in and the tube letting the wine out so that pumping in gas increases the pressure inside the barrel; the wine has nowhere to go but out the exit tube. Bulldog Pups are far more gentle than any pump. They can also virtually eliminate oxygen exposure during racking when nitrogen or argon is used to do the pushing.

Neither of those is Walters’ main reason for using the Pup. He even uses plain-old forced atmospheric air, replete with oxygen, to push. After ten months undisturbed in barrel, the wine can use the oxygen exposure. His reason for racking this way is so that he can watch the wine as it comes up the tube (through a conveniently placed sight glass) and decide on a barrel-by-barrel basis what to leave behind. Bulldog Pups have a foot that will automatically shut off flow at a pre-set level: a winemaker can decide to leave four inches of lees in each barrel, set the foot appropriately, and then leave the cane to mind itself while his attention is elsewhere. Walters doesn’t automate, and the only person who racks is him.

Walters’ approach reminded me of what his colleague Gareth King, Felton Road’s viticulturist, said about how he practices precision viticulture. The man doesn’t seem to want for much, but when we encountered the harvest crew coming in from a morning vineyard walk, he said, “You know my best technology? They just walked past us.”

I can’t say what difference GPS sensors versus summer interns might make, but I can say that Felton Road’s pinots were among the best I tasted. Central Otago pinots can be a bit clunky, but Felton Road’s are texturally lighter and more elegant, with plenty of clean raspberry and strawberry aromas up front backed up with enough earthiness and tannins to keep things interesting. The 2012 Bannockburn and 2012 Cornish Point bottlings seemed to walk that balance of lightness and structure particularly well.

Precision viticulture is veritably new. It’s downright revolutionary, really, in terms of how it changes the way vignerons can think about vineyard management. But technology isn’t the only way to pay attention to details. The old-fashioned strategy of carefully and consistently observing what’s happening with individual vines isn’t an exact substitute for GPS-enabled water uptake meters: the technology is more precise and lets the vineyard manager put his eyes in a lot of different places at the same time — and collect data in his sleep or during family meals, which has to be a real boon. And I can imagine monitoring individual barrels with some kind of wireless oxygen sensor that can track and measure differences between how each barrel transmits oxygen — since every barrel is unique in this respect — and lets winemakers make corresponding individualized adjustments. No amount of careful personal attention could do that.

But Walters’ version of precision winemaking and King’s version of precision viticulture will serve as a good reminder for me every time I read a journal article or press release about some nifty new precision gadget. Some of the best technology comes on two legs.