Standardized tasting: Could wine be like Thai food?

Wine tasting is astonishingly non-standardized. In an era in which kids’ writing on high-stakes tests is routinely being graded by computer algorithms*, computerized tongues still have a pretty limited use in grading wine. Sensory scientists try to standardize their human tasting panels as much as possible by training people to recognize standard smells and tastes and by using various statistical maneuvers to filter out individual variation. But wine tasting in nearly every important and interesting way involves everyone’s palates being a bit different. The question is: are we tolerating that difference or celebrating it? If we could really standardize wine tasting, would we want to?

My June piece for Palate Press is about a phenomenon, mostly marvelous but also a bit frightening, that could help a standardization agenda. Wine changes in our mouths, thanks to salivary enzymes and bacteria with more enzymes that create aromatic compounds from previously unaromatic ones. Because both the bacteria and the enzymes are different for different people, it’s likely that we’re each tasting the same wine a bit differently, not just because our physical apparatus for tasting is different — different numbers of taste buds and so on — but because the molecules we’re smelling are actually a bit different.

This is, on the one hand, fantastic. Not only is the science just plain interesting, but it’s one more part of an explanation for a common but peculiar and sometimes frustrating experience: multiple people taste the same wine, but taste different things. On the other hand, it opens up some frightening prospects. If we have individual variations, then we’re likely to find some way to judge those differences and make some better or worse or ideal or unacceptable. Will prospective judges for strenuous wine competitions need to spit into a sample cup for the sake of enzymatic analysis and be eliminated if they don’t meet the standard protocol?

Last year, the Thai government released an electronic tongue expressly designed to protect would-be eaters of Thai food from incorrectly prepared culinary monstrosities. (It occurs that the Thai government feels about its food something of the way France has historically felt about its language.) The machine awards a sample a score on a 100-point scale; 80 is the threshold for an “acceptable” version of a dish. The dense politics surrounding who gets to define the standards might be the only reason why a similar internationally distributable box for Bordeaux or Burgundy hasn’t yet been marketed.

Thailand’s authenticity verifier relies on standards generated by Thai university students: the scientists had students rank samples of a dish in terms of which they preferred. That strategy presumably worked well in a fairly homogenous cultural context and when we take it for granted that Thai people are the authorities on how Thai food should taste. Could the same ever be said for wine? I’d hazard that our global wine tasting palates — the way we educate ourselves to expect wine to taste — probably owe more to the oenophilous Brits, not only because they drank lots of wine but because they popularized a particular idea of wine appreciation and wine writing across their empire. Do we get British experts to generate our standards for good taste, or MW students, or some representative sample of global wine drinkers? And then, if your own tastes differ, are you wrong?

It may be that my notions about the validity of personal taste are peculiarly American, where individuality is so much a virtue that it’s hard to remember that the rest of the world doesn’t always feel the same way. But the question isn’t just about individuality, but about who sets the standards. Wine appreciators have spent a lot of energy convincing people who aren’t upper middle-class white British men that wine can be for them, too, and that what matters most is what you like, not what someone tells you you should like. Even if we can standardize wine tasting, actually doing so may work against what wine lovers at large are trying to achieve.



Ampelography –> Genetics –> ? Varieties –> Clones –> ?

How much difference does clone make to flavor, and where do we draw the line between important and unimportant differences? The line might really be between interesting and uninteresting differences; any difference is important if we choose to make it so. I’ve written on Palate Press this month about variety, clone, and treating pinot gris like pinot noir, which provokes an unsettling argument about what differences are important differences.

Before the global phylloxera crisis in the late 19th century, precisely identifying varieties was less crucial from a viticultural standpoint, bottles didn’t routinely carry variety information until the mid-20th c., and many from the Old World still don’t. But where variety is the way consumers make purchase decisions, some now go a step further and heralding specific clones, at least on websites and to wine writers.

We have reasonably fixed definitions for what constitutes a variety and a clone. A variety is the unique progeny resulting from a fertilized egg involving genetic reassortment between the DNA of two parents. A clone is a variant of a variety resulting from small genetic changes (usually spontaneous changes from random mutations) involving just those genes, not full-on mixing. Fine.

But those definitions are essentially arbitrary, or at least they could be otherwise. The technology we have defines how we can define a species, or a variety, or a clone. Clones are only clones when those genetic changes produce some big, obvious physical change that a grower will notice and decide she likes enough to cut and reproduce. Most genetic changes aren’t like that. Most probably don’t result in any important change to grape quality, but there’s likely a whole category of mutations that affect ripeness, phenols, canopy development, or whatever that go unnoticed — because they’re not big and obvious, maybe because they deal with invisible chemicals — but that affect quality parameters we care about.

We’re developing precision viticulture techniques that map vineyards at a sub-block and perhaps even individual vine level for differences in development and quality. As genetic testing becomes easier, precision vit could easily include genetically typing individual vines. Purchased stock should fit the known genetic profile of a known and loved clone bought from a certified facility, but older vineyards are going to be full of endless numbers of new…clones? Do we call them clones when they’ve not been selected and propagated?

The resolution at which we can define species — actually, let’s make it simpler and just say define differences — changes with the technology we have to do so. So we moved from ampelography to Mendel to DNA sequencing to the Robinson, Harding, and Vouillamoz tome outlining the genetic relationships of darn near most grape varieties on the planet. A splendid article from 1938 outlining principles for doing ampelography — distinguishing grape varieties by their physical characteristics — observes that botanical and horticultural classifications of grape varieties are different. The botanists want to describe family relationships, the horticulturists to create practical guides for distinguishing varieties, so we have the genetic tree and the field identification guide. Different purposes, different resolutions, different differences called out as important.

Resolution isn’t about “natural” differences. It’s about the degree of difference we decide is important. I’ve tasted pretty profound differences amongst different clones from the same vineyard when they’ve been vinified separately and before they’re blended together. They’re striking. They’re wonderful. My little wine writer soul wants to proclaim over new-found differences. Those differences seem important. But in older mixed-planting vineyards full of whatever happened to be around at the time, harvested and made all together as a “field blend,” variety may not even be all that important.

On the one hand, people like Matt Kramer have been urging growers (of pinot noir in particular) to plant lots of different clones as a prayer against the curse of boring wine. And researchers looking to natural grape genetic diversity for breedable salvation from Pierce’s Disease, powdery mildew, and other expensive threats caution against limiting and losing living genetic pools that could be irreplaceable in our time of future need. And yet, if those researchers succeed, growers will have first one, maybe eventually a handful of clones carrying those disease resistance genes that they’ll want (or be pressured to) plant.

As many winemakers tell me that they don’t want to talk about clones and wish people would stop asking about them as want to talk about little else; I suspect that there’s a poetry competition for odes to chardonnay “Mendoza” and pinot noir “Abel” running somewhere in New Zealand. It’s part of your story or it’s not. Great. But we can say the same thing about variety, and maybe all of this consumer interest in genetic differences is merely a fad. A century from now we could be talking about micro-clones, or about clades, or about specific genes a vine does or doesn’t carry, or about famous vineyards planted with an especially successful mix. Wine evolution, made possible with the support of genetics, but brought to you by the eddies of our changing attention spans.

On Palate Press: Machine vs. hand-harvesting (and our future with robots in winemaking)

A few years back, a group of Auckland-based researchers established that machine-harvested Marlborough sauvignon blanc has higher aromatic thiol concentrations = tastes more intensely Marlborough sauv blanc-y = is better than wine from hand-harvested grapes. I don’t know how widely that logic is known amongst wine consumers, in New Zealand or elsewhere. Reading back labels in my local wine shop makes it clear that the hand-picked grapes = superior wine logic rules in the minds of marketers and, if they’re any bellwether (a worthwhile question), at least some consumers.

Marlborough sauvignon blanc aside, is that prejudice justified? My January piece for Palate Press addresses that question. The short answer is that hand-harvested grapes are in many settings more about feeling good about purchasing genuine artisan wine than about quality or flavor. The longer answer is here.

Saying that hand vs. machine harvesting is becoming less and less of a quality issue, with better equipment in the field and in the winery, isn’t the same as saying that the difference doesn’t matter. It does, to our perceptions of what we drink. But it’s also impossible not to see this as one more instance of Robots Will Take Our Jobs, and a particularly hard-hitting one with wine such a cultural icon. A lot of vacuous dithering takes place in the media around this topic (even in outlets like The Atlantic, though this piece from The Economist might be an exception) and, to be honest, I’m not sure that I have anything worthwhile to add. We’re headed, I think, for a major shift in how people work, earn money/obtain necessary resources, and spend their time. That shift may come in the form of an organized political (maybe governmental, maybe by large companies) decision to redefine work and money, or it may come as a necessary post-degenerate organic movement after the fall of Rome. Either way, being human, we’ll continue to find meaning in our work whether that means choosing to harvest grapes by hand because it’s meaningful to do so, even when a machine/robot can do a better job, by redefining wine quality such that the robot can’t do the job as well, or by understanding human winemaking as a conceptual art independent of the physical work of our hands.