From New York Times Sunday Magazine: The Chemistry of a 90+ Point Wine

'Enologix divides wine into four categories. For reds, Style 1 is pale in color and low in tannin, like most Pinot Noir or French Burgundy; Style 2 is also pale, but higher in tannin, like California Nebbiolo or Italian Barolo; Style 3 is dark and tannic, like a great many Napa Cabernet Sauvignons and first-growth Bordeaux; Style 4 is similarly dark but only moderately tannic.'

New York Times Sunday Magazine
The Chemistry of a 90+ Point Wine
By David Darlington

One day last September
while Leo McCloskey was driving to the Chappellet winery in Napa Valley, he telephoned a client in the neighboring valley of Sonoma. ''I'm looking at your metrics,'' McCloskey said. ''They're pretty beefy. If you have that at midferm, you're already there. You need 50 percent as a 4; I think drain-down-sweet is the name of the game this year. Let's do what they do at Lafite -- come out shy of tannin, and we'll add tannin. I want to encourage you to move more aggressively than you normally would.''

He listened for a few seconds. ''You're golden,'' McCloskey said. ''Beautiful -- you got a statue in the quad. Hey, I gotta fly.'' He ended the call and turned to me. ''If you're in Sonoma, you have to rearrange Mother Nature to match the beauty of Napa and Bordeaux,'' he said. ''Napa cabernet is the only New World wine ruler that's being used internationally. Sonoma is an also-ran.''

McCloskey steered onto the Silverado Trail, entering into Stags Leap, the area that produced the cabernet sauvignon that won a famous Paris tasting in 1976, heralding the international arrival of California wine. ''They picked too early,'' McCloskey said, gazing at acres of grapeless vines on both sides of the road. ''We have a weekly online bulletin that tells people when to pick. On Sept. 13 we said not to, and people who picked anyway drained down at 87.1.''

McCloskey could say this because his company, Enologix, takes grape samples from clients and extracts the juice to measure some of its chemical compounds. Then, using software developed by McCloskey, Enologix compares the chemistry of the projected wines with that of a benchmark example. The outcome is a score on a 100-point scale, analogous -- not coincidentally -- to those employed by critics like Robert Parker of The Wine Advocate and James Laube of Wine Spectator. McCloskey boasted that his ''thinking is in tune with Parker, Laube and Helen Turley'' -- the latter a California winemaker notorious for favoring big, fruity, intense wines.

Not everyone shares this taste, however. Many oenophiles argue that -- owing especially to the influence of Parker, who has been called the planet's most powerful critic of any kind, in any field -- wines all over the world have become more and more homogenous. The jammy, oaky international style is largely free of the tannins that mellow and lend flavor as a wine ages but can make it taste bitter or astringent when young. Yet these wines often lack a sense of terroir, or regional distinctiveness, celebrated by so many wine aficionados. Parker's most lamented impact is his popularization of the 100-point scale that is now employed by most wine magazines. The so-called Score has been described as America's main contribution to the wine business: a democratic, no-nonsense way of jettisoning the elitist jargon that veils quality from the consumer. It is also maligned for turning wine buyers into mindless puppets and vintners into sycophants seeking the favor of King Parker and King Laube.

In the 15 years since McCloskey went into business for himself as a wine consultant, the number of California wineries has increased from 800 to 1,700, roughly speaking. The market share of foreign-made wines in the United States has doubled over the same period. With so many wineries now under the bottom-line control of corporations -- Constellation, Bronco, Beringer Blass, Brown-Forman, Kendall-Jackson, Diageo, the Wine Group and the longtime kingpin, E. & J. Gallo -- it is easy to see the appeal of Enologix, with its promise of ''metrics that assist winemakers in . . . boosting average national critics' scores.'' But McCloskey doesn't stop there. He insists that high-scoring wines can, through chemical analysis, be scientifically proved to be the best wines on the market. In other words, there is accounting for taste.

The low-slung Enologix offices are situated in a mini-business-park in the town of Sonoma. When I visited McCloskey there, he said that he has a database containing records of 70,000 wines, including information about soil, climate, prices, winemaking techniques, grape-growing practices and critical scores. While traditional wine science focuses mainly on primary chemicals -- things like sugar, alcohol and acidity, which determine whether a wine meets basic standards of acceptability -- McCloskey looks at secondary chemicals (like terpenes, phenols and anthocyanins), which, in affecting more nuanced characteristics like texture, aroma, taste and color, are more closely associated with quality.

To analyze an individual wine, Enologix runs a sample through a liquid chromatograph (and for white wine, a mass spectrometer) to separate and measure chemical compounds. McCloskey says he has identified about 100 that can affect a person's response; to compute a wine's ''quality index,'' the ratios -- not just the amounts -- of these compounds to one another are compared with those of bottled wines previously judged and scored by groups of vintners, growers, owners and critics. McCloskey publishes his findings in his magazine, Global Vintage Quarterly, alongside a separate National Critics' Score, which represents an average rating compiled from five publications: Wine Spectator, The Wine Advocate, Wine Enthusiast, Stephen Tanzer's International Wine Cellar and Connoisseurs' Guide to California Wine.

In the 15 years since McCloskey went into business for himself as a wine consultant, the number of California wineries has increased from 800 to 1,700, roughly speaking. The market share of foreign-made wines in the United States has doubled over the same period. With so many wineries now under the bottom-line control of corporations -- Constellation, Bronco, Beringer Blass, Brown-Forman, Kendall-Jackson, Diageo, the Wine Group and the longtime kingpin, E. & J. Gallo -- it is easy to see the appeal of Enologix, with its promise of ''metrics that assist winemakers in . . . boosting average national critics' scores.'' But McCloskey doesn't stop there. He insists that high-scoring wines can, through chemical analysis, be scientifically proved to be the best wines on the market. In other words, there is accounting for taste.



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