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Beyond analysis: In search of the “what,” not the “how”

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People who are seriously getting into wine–who’ve crossed over from being “mere” wine likers to wanting to know more about what they’re drinking–often start by becoming interested in technical aspects. What’s the residual sugar? How much new oak? How many cases were produced? What clones did you use? Winery representatives who pour at public events or who work in tasting rooms are used to these questions. I often feel sorry for them because they have to say things like “It’s a mix of Clone 667 and Pommard” about 400 times a day.

I went through this technical phase in the 1990s. I would ask the kinds of questions I thought a wine journalist should ask. How many buds per spur? What’s the rootstock? Do you pump over or punch down? But somehow my questions bored me, and so for the most part did the answers. I was thinking about wine rather than feeling it, and over-thinking it, at that, which was a barrier to understanding the essence of wine, which is: Not numbers, but heart, life, soul, essence.

At some point, I decided to jettison that part of me. It wasn’t a conscious decision, like waking up one day and thinking “I’ll never ask a technical question again.” And it isn’t that I no longer ask technical questions; I do, when there’s a reason to. I simply found myself asking less about technique and more about the winemaker’s motives, perspectives, aspirations and understanding. Not “Is the wine fined or filtered” but What is the winemaker trying to do? What’s her vision, her ideal, her dream? Why that, and not something else? How has she evolved over the years? How does she reconcile the natural tension between the commercial aspects of her job and the artistic ones? How does she perceive her wine as an expression of its terroir? These are not technical questions; they are inquiries into the winemaker’s thought processes and practices, and their answers shed more light, I think, on why the wine is the way it is than any laboratory analysis. Besides, I think my readers, who always are foremost in my mind, would rather read about these things, and not numbers.

Writers obsessed with technique suffer from “paralysis by analysis,” which Wikipedia defines as “over-analyzing (or over-thinking) a situation, or citing sources, so that a decision or action is never taken, in effect paralyzing the outcome.” It also is the title of a blog Terry Theise wrote last week in the Huffington Post. While I’ve had my differences with Terry, primarily over his disdain for California wines, here he’s right on when he says “I’ve reached a place in my drinking career where I find…analytical stats otiose.” He quotes a German winemaker who once told him, “You don’t need these [numbers] anymore, Terry. Analyses are for beginners.”

Now, many wine drinkers are beginners, of course, as Terry rightly points out, and he observes that it would be “peevish of me to deny them the understanding they seek.” Yet he lets us know that “technical minutiae” are not what he wants to write about, nor are they the things wine lovers ought to obsess over. “If you’re stuck in the ‘how,’” Terry writes, with epigrammatic lucidity,  “you’ll have a rough time finding your way to the ‘what.’”

What is the “what”? It is what the wine really is: its meaning in this world. That meaning need not be grandiose; it can be ordinary. Whatever it is, it can be written about–and it can be inferred by others. The “what” is, of course, what every wine writer ultimately wants to capture. It also is what true wine connoisseurs seek, yet it will never be obtained by statistics. Many people who taste wine at public events and in tasting rooms seem insecure, and asking a technical question is a form of compensation for their fear of appearing ignorant–it makes them look like they know what they’re talking about (to themselves, to the pourer and, often, to the others in their group). (By the way, writers can feel insecure, too, especially when talking with winemakers.) But really, technical information doesn’t advance the amateur’s understanding of wine. If anything, it impedes it–paralysis by analysis.

  1. There is so much ego and competition in wine and at wine tastings, your analysis of the insecurity of consumers at tasting rooms and public tasting events are replicated at trade tastings.

    The most interesting conversations I’ve had with winemakers/producers involved whatever they were passionate about at that moment in time.
    For Randall Grahm last month it was Biochar saving the planet and saving terroir.
    For Kareem Massoud this past August it was the new netting he was using to protect the grapes that also created more sunlight refraction to help ripen the grapes in cool Long Island (used white for red grapes, black for white grapes).
    For Christian Moieux a couple of years ago it was about his realizing that Cabernet Franc vines become mature much later than Cab Sauv or Merlot. He won’t use Cab F in his best wines till vine age is 15 years old!
    For Bruwer Raats a decade ago it was again about Cabernet Franc, and his finding vineyards with lots of reflective stones and soils so the grapes got ultimate ripeness.

    All these I remember, a conversation about clones or pH levels last week I can’t.

  2. doug wilder says:

    Steve, You raise some good points. Very early in my wine career, I tasted with a winemaker who was making a pair of Carneros Pinot Noir from Dijon 114 and 115. This was my first experience trying them together and they did taste different, though the clone was just one of the reasons why. Over time, and the more I tasted and learned, my line of questioning about how the wine was made was not to write down a bunch of technical facts recited by the winemaker. Instead I asked questions to confirm my observations (This tastes like it has some Pommard, who much is in there?, or Is this the only wine where whole cluster was used, what percentage, and why? When tasting in my office, I also do this when writing my notes. Usually tech sheets accompany the wines and I don’t look at those until afterwards. Sometimes they confirm, but not always.

  3. This is why it’s good when you’re at a tasting or a winery it’s better to drink somewhat “blindly,” meaning that they will not know all the nitty gritty of how it was made and then we can fill in the context later. In all honesty, I love the Ridge and Calera bottles which are very honest about the process.

    That being said, how often does a normal person taste in such a setting? Rarely. For the average wine consumer, details such as how dry the wine, how much oak, etc. can have a great impact on whether you want to drink it and with what. Too often those details are lacking and really that’s the kind of info the non-rabid wine drinker wants.

    I’ve only seen judgements on wine based on the specs or the technical process details, above whether it’s an industrial vs non-industrial wine, be used to judge wine in the most snooty of groups. Really, the proof is in the pudding so to speak. I don’t see why Theise would blame wine details when it’s really the wine fascists he abhors who extoll their short cited musings. You’d only have to see Rajat Parr not be able to determine a high alcohol wine to know he’s off his rocker (or RP not be able to tell Right Bank from Left), to know that absolute findings of location, AVA, vintage, wine making technique, or vineyard practice do not a great wine make.

  4. Dear Jack, I will only add that not being able to tell Left from Right Bank, or a high alcohol wine, is not a sin. It can and does happen to us all and there’s no reason to be ashamed.

  5. I agree completely. So much of taste is relative (to what was just tasted and to how things balance one another). Then again, it might be a sin to say that only low ETOH wines are good or balanced ala Parr or than you can remember every wine you’ve ever tasted ala Parker. These statements of false bravado are hopefully waning.

  6. reviewing a wine without knowing its chemistry is like reviewing a car without knowing about the engine

  7. Steve
    I would have to disagree with you and Terry. I think people are more interested in what they consume, be it food or wine, than they ever have before. They want to know where it is grown, who is growing it, and how. I applaud these people who ask these questions without falling in line. As a winemaker, the journey of making the wine is as important as the final product. Don’t be fooled that winemakers aren’t concerned with the “technical minutiae,” otherwise they wouldn’t be adding so much extraneous shit to their wines.

  8. I recall leading a tasting in the ’90′s at a wine shop in Cleveland for their best customers. The proprietor kept interrupting with questions designed to impress the customers with his amazing technical insights, culminating in his lecturing them about the effects of “marfolactic fermentation” (or as best I can spell what came out of his mouth).

  9. Steve, this may be one of the most important posts you’ve ever made. From a Marketing perspective, what you’ve written is undeniably true: people seek meaning, not data. And yet data is mostly what wineries serve up.

    The challenge to wineries that seek dialog with consumers (this would presume anyone engaged in social media) is to find ways to communicate “the winemaker’s motives, perspectives, aspirations and understanding” and to do so in ways that aren’t clichéd.

    In other words, how do you express the core ideas that every winery has – that wine is made in the vineyard, that low-yields equal quality, that balance and complexity are desirable, etc. – so that they are your own and not interchangeable with every other winery.

  10. Well-stated Fred, though finding “‘ways to communicate the winemaker’s motives, perspectives, aspirations and understanding’ and to do so in ways that aren’t clichéd,” can be very difficult when marketing is so integral to sales and, ergo, the winemakers job. Everyone involved in the process of producing and selling just about any wine, even hip small-production ones, is in some way obligated to promote the products they are selling as best they can. This is why so many winemakers have, “motives, perspectives, aspirations and understanding,” that sound eerily similar. It is why so many producers are allegedly into being “non-interventionist, environmentally friendly etc…”

    I’m being a little too cynical here; there are many winemakers out there that are truly passionate about what they proclaim to be passionate. I guess that I am saying it is very difficult to sort the wheat from the chaff, and sometimes the wheat isn’t too far off from chaff- so to speak.

    The way I see it, there are two problems at play here– there is the corrupting influence of capitalism, and the ugly, ego-driven problem of snobbery. Both are either difficult or impossible to overcome. Be as humble as you want, if you are into wine, you will be accused of being a snob. As I look at my own experience, at least, I know that more than once that accusation was well-justified. As far as the influence of capitalism, we can never forget that wine is a product, produced and sold for profit. It may also be a product of passion and integrity, but it is a product, and the people marketing it, be it the winemaker or some sales-rep, are bound to put a spin on what it is.

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