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Big data supports expert wine tasters

In the course of developing software for predicting consumer wine preferences, a Houston-based start up, VineSleuth, shed new light on the abilities of expert wine tasters and the validity of blind tasting assessments. Contrary to popular belief, the company’s VineSleuth metrics, which are based on the work of Chief Science Officer Michael Tompkins and his team, reveal that tasters can consistently identify aroma and flavor characteristics in blind wine evaluations.

“We have extensive experimental data which support that expert evaluators have the capacity to precisely identify wine characteristics in blind repeat samples,” said Tompkins whose work spans thirteen years in the field of numerical methods. “During the course of our experiments, our vetted evaluators repeat sample characteristics about 90% of the time,” he says.

Michael Tompkins

VineSleuth’s data directly confronts the popular misconception that consistent sensory evaluation of wine is a random occurrence. In developing an algorithm designed to help consumers make wine selections based on personal preference, the company has established a benchmark based on the results of its top-performing tasters (including this author) and intends to use those data to vet future tasters who participate in ongoing research and product  development.


Amy Gross

CEO and co-founder Amy Gross stepped forward with the company’s findings in advance of a beta release of the Wine4.Me smartphone application, wine ranking engine and website in response to several blog posts which inferred a general lack of expert repeatability based on a study conducted by winery owner Robert Hodgson and published in the Journal of Wine Economics in 2009. Hodgson’s study which calls to light the inconsistencies between wine competition results has been widely misinterpreted casting doubt on the abilities of highly-trained wine professionals including those who participated in VineSleuth’s research.

The relevance of Hodgson’s 2009 study-one that relies on highly subjective data and the work of evaluators who are not equally qualified to the task-has been called into question by VineSleuth’s findings. “Just because panelists in wine competitions can’t repeat results doesn’t mean that individual experts are not able to repeatedly identify a wine’s aroma and flavor characteristics and their intensities in blind samples,” said Tompkins, who relied on experimental and statistical methodologies used in the field of sensory science as the basis for VineSleuth’s data acquisition and analyses. “We’re confident that our methodology is statistically valid and we’re eager to see it applied,” says Tompkins.


A tranquil moment with Didier Depond

In a rare tête-a-tête, The SOMM Journal joined Didier Depond, President of the Champagne houses Salon and Delamotte, for an effervescent lunch featuring their current releases at San Francisco’s Piperade.

We began with the superbly chalky 2008 Delamotte, which hails from just six Grand Cru villages. The 100 percent Blanc de Blanc brims with texture and ripe golden apple notes, and after observing the intensity of fruit on the mid-palate, I queried Depond on the risk climate change poses to the houses’ iconic style. He was quite circumspect in his response: “The culture of the vineyards in Champagne relies on balance, and we will balance them with this shift.”

Despite more extreme weather events like the freak hailstorms earlier this year, warming temperatures in this marginal growing region may in fact work to the advantage of Champagne producers. Addressing the elephant in the room, we discussed the hotly debated expansion of the Champagne AOP area by an additional 5 percent. “Historically, these approved areas were under vine,” Depond said. “And, despite what you’ve read, there is only minor dissent among the members of the CIVC [Le Comité Interprofessionnel du vin de Champagne]. I’m really very pleased.” The additional area gives the AOP some breathing room, as demand and supply previously ran neck and neck.

Depond and I then tasted the 2007 Salon: The wine exudes liquid minerals at first taste, showing notes of fresh dough and caramelized salted butter—described by Depond as “caramel au beurre salé”— with a thread of delicate white peach. There’s a singular sensation in the mouth that leaves lemon and lime zest clinging to the lips, lengthening an innervated finish. “The wine was decanted and held at temperature,” said Depond, who advocates for letting Salon catch its breath for up to two hours before service.

Caught off guard, I questioned his decision to forgo most of the bubbles, but he persisted and pointed out that I described the wine as “innervated” despite it being almost tranquil in the glass. “It was a very high compliment indeed when [Domaine de la Romanee-Conti co-director] Aubert de Villaine observed that we had made a very fine Burgundy,” he added.

Well-known as a man of his word, Depond says the 2008 Salon—a relatively small vintage produced only in magnum—will release in late 2019 after both of his highly allocated brands made their way to the fine dining scene in Malaysia earlier this year. Find the pdf here Depond Aug-Sept2018pdf

Natural cork, a scapegoat for wine defects

When wine professionals encounter a sensory deviation in wine and the offending molecule isn’t obvious, cork often takes the blame by default. While not every taster is capable of decoding a library of aromas at the molecular level, the ability to detect basic defects like Brettanomyces, volatile acidity, and Trichloroanisole (TCA) is fundamental to objectively assessing wine quality.

During a recent sensory exercise conducted by Ana Cristina Lopes Cardoso, Research and Development Manager at Cork Supply Portugal, a group of trained tasters among them top Irish sommelier Julie Dupouy-Young and myself—were tasked with identifying TCA in wine at levels of 1, 2, and 4 parts per trillion (ppt/ng/l).

Lopes Cardoso staged a series of Duo-Trio tests in which one of three samples acts as the control to be matched. Not surprisingly, all the tasters could detect TCA, which has a very low threshold of 3–5 ppt—though very few tasters could find it at 1 or 2 ppt.


Ana Cristina Lopes Cardoso, Research and Development Manager at Cork Supply Portugal, leads a sensory training.

Things got even more interesting when the tasters were also confronted with samples that had been heavily doctored with five different molecules that emulate TCA, including 1-Octen-3-ol, which smells distinctly of mushroom; geosmin, which is associated with the smell after a rainstorm; and 2,4,6-Trichlorophenol (TCP), a TCA precursor with a specific but hard to-detect chemical odor.

“For example, when analysis shows the presence pentachloroanisole (PCA) and TCA occurring together in wine, TCA is the source of the sensory deviation but cork isn’t the source of the contamination,” said Lopes Cardoso who points to winery hygiene, insecticides and building materials like insulation as the culprits.

Despite the existence of research identifying contamination molecules from production and storage premises for the past 25 years, it’s easy to see why cork takes the rap when other moldy or earthy-smelling molecules are present at detection thresholds: The majority of tasters simply can’t identify or differentiate between them. As the cork industry rushes to employ automated sensing equipment designed to weed out TCA-contaminated natural corks, it’s rare to find technologies currently available that screen for TCA and other “off-aromas.”


Cork Supply President/founder Jochen Michalski and author.

According to Cork Supply President/founder Jochen Michalski, this makes the Northern California–based company’s service the most rigorous available in the marketplace today. During a process Cork Supply has developed called Dry Soak 100 (DS100), which analyzes the headspace of heated cork, natural corks are subject to a rigorous round of sensory evaluation by at least three human sensors. “Although we’ve also developed an automated technology to screen corks called DS100+, I still have more confidence in our human sensory DS100 screening method,” Michalski says. “With DS100 we’re also able to remove any other off-aromas.”

But it’s the latest research on corklins—compounds found in cork that react with flavonoids in wine to protect color and reduce astringency over time—that’s shifting the cork industry’s focus on sensory neutrality. Researchers are using near-infrared spectroscopy to grade corks and oak staves from low to high according to the amount of phenols they will release into wine. Given the cork industry’s speedy adoption rate of technologies that add value to their products, winemakers may soon have another criterion—phenolic content—to consider when selecting grades of cork.  See the SOMM Journal pdf – S&A Aug-Sept2018

Micro-lot Cabernet from Napa’s rockiest site

Cobbles reminiscent of the kind you find in the Southern Rhône aren’t the first thing you typically encounter in a Napa Valley vineyard. At Game Farm vineyard, owned and managed by Alex Vyborny and son Ben, it’s what differentiates their site from many others in Oakville. That cobbled terroir drew Goosecross Cellars winemaker Bill Nancarrow who sources fruit for the independent C. Elizabeth brand to the site like a bee to honey.
A micro lot of Game Farm vineyard, Rock Pit’s cobbles are atypical for Napa Valley.
Nancarrow first discovered the Rock Pit Cabernet Sauvignon parcel, a micro lot within the 40-acre Game Farm vineyard that lies directly below the Rector Creek Dam, when he was making wine at neighboring Duckhorn. “The vineyard has two different soil types,” said Nancarrow. “It’s a mix of wash composed of large stones and ferrous volcanic soils with a high iron content.”  The vineyard takes its name from the State Bird Farm that once occupied the site and where thousands of pheasants, quail and partridges were raised annually and then “planted” throughout California.
Clone 7 Cabernet Sauvignon intended for C. Elizabeth 2017 just weeks from harvest.
The unique terroir of the Rock Pit is the result of both natural and manmade forces. The alluvial wash that was thrown down by Rector Creek over time as it flowed down the Vaca mountains and across the valley floor was revealed when top soil was scrapped from the site to construct the Rector Dam. Rector Creek was dammed in 1946 to provide a water source for the Napa State Hospital and the Veterans Home.
Rock Pit, also called the Lower Boulder Field, is the rockiest micro lot within the Vyborny’s Game Farm vineyard. It’s planted to Cabernet Sauvignon Clone 7 with vines that are now 20 to 25 years old.  Nancarrow began making C. Elizabeth for husband and wife vintners Christi Coors Ficeli and Dave Ficeli in 2014, and 200 cases have now been released directly from the winery through allocation at
C. Elizabeth vintners Christi Coors Ficeli and Dave Ficeli with their inaugural release.
For the C. Elizabeth “Game Farm” Cabernet Sauvignon 2014 ($125), Nancarrow selected water-bent barrels from two different American oak coopers and used 55 percent new oak. The bottling is a barrel selection and the finished wine shows dusty red and black currant, dark cherry, roasted walnuts, bittersweet cocoa and cinnamon with a black-fruited mid-palate and salty, black licorice finish.
C. Elizabeth Cabernet Sauvignon hails from Napa’s rockiest site.
“Wines from this site typically show more floral aromatics and have dense, creamy tannins that are attributed to the ferrous soils,” says  Nancarrow.
C. Elizabeth is a deeply personal labor-of-love collaboration for Christi and Dave. It’s a project that the wine industry veterans have dreamt about for more than a decade and one that came to fruition when they signed on Bill Nancarrow to produce the wine. “We’ve nurtured this project for many years and to see our first release being enjoyed by family and friends is so rewarding,” said Coors Ficeli.
With 2015, 2016 and 2017 C. Elizabeth Cabs in barrel there’s more Rock Pit in the pipe line.  According to Nancarrow, “2015 was a vintage for reds and the site showed its classical side with tobacco and more grip.” While it slumbers in the cellar, the 2016 is close behind with tangy, plumy fruit and a whiff of oregano. “This site responds very well to American oak; it frames but doesn’t mask the character of the vintage.”

Lodi home to California’s best wine value

Collier Creek 2016 Front Coach Chardonnay is, by all accounts, a first class
ticket for the price of coach. With a retail price of $9.99, you might assume that massive amounts of this wine are being produced but winemaker Susana Rodriguez Vasquez made just 5,000 cases.

This stand-alone brand resides under the umbrella of Lodi’s Peltier Winery and Vineyards which has a solid track record of over delivering in quality for value and this year’s Best Value Wine is no exception. According to Rodriguez Vasquez, Front Coach Chardonnay is deeply lemon-hued and very aromatic with pear, peach and pineapple aromas that indicate a riper style. She describes the wine as full-bodied with bright fruit flavors, a round mouthfeel and a crisp green apple and citrus finish. “This is a refreshing, fruit forward style that’s stainless steel fermented and because it hasn’t undergone malolactic fermentation it doesn’t have any buttery flavors,” she said.

In crafting Front Coach Chardonnay, Rodriguez Vasquez relies entirely on fruit quality and purity because she’s not using oak or manipulating the wine to mask or enhance flavors. She sources Chardonnay from the winery’s Lewis Ranch, an Elk Grove estate that lies in the northern-most part of Lodi’s Alta Mesa sub AVA. The site benefits from cooling delta winds that blow from the nearby Sacramento River creating what is deemed a perfect micro climate for growing wine.

Vineyard manager and proprietor, Rodney Schatz farms the estate according to the Lodi Rules for sustainable wine growing, a certification program that relies on no less than 120 standards and is being adopted by wine growing regions around the world. Rodriguez Vasquez believes the quality of the Collier Creek wines is “a clear reflection of a healthy vineyard and these agriculture practices.” While there’s no question that meticulous farming costs more, Peltier Winery is able to machine harvest the vineyard which helps keep costs down for consumers.

Working with such high quality fruit also means less intervention in the winery for Rodriguez Vasquez. Collier Creek Wine Co. was introduced in 2016 to honor the Lodi Appellation by third generation wine growers Rodney and Gayla Schatz. The brand includes five varietals: Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, Pinot Noir and Merlot. The Schatz family farms over 1200 acres in Lodi and they made the leap from grower to vintner when they bottled their first wines in 2005.


Winemaker Susana Rodriguez Vasquez

Bolivian-born Rodriguez Vasquez spent the previous ten years working with E & J Gallo and Constellation Brands working with fruit from all over California and New Zealand before joining the Peltier team as winemaker in 2016. She’s approaching her third harvest with the winery and couldn’t be happier with the reception the value brand is receiving, “We are very excited with the Collier Creek product line, and we are happy to see it grow so rapidly.” Collier Creek Front Coach Chardonnay is available at retailers across the United States.

Picchetti Winery scores big with 2017 Sauvignon Blanc

At first glance, this ethereal Sauvignon Blanc which is described by Mike Bruzus, associate winemaker at Picchetti Winery, as “almost color less, the palest straw” could be mistaken for water. But from the moment your nose comes within a few inches of the glass, there’s a rush of aromas, a jumble of fragrance that includes pink grapefruit, pineapple, gooseberry, honeydew melon, guava, lychee and mineral notes of wet rocks and saline. A precursor of what’s to come when you taste it and a certain indicator that this isn’t a “simple” wine.

picchetti ranch engagement session

Mike Bruzus, Picchetti winery

Consulting Winemaker, Craig Roemer sources the Picchetti Sauvignon Blanc from the Cedar Lane Vineyard in the Arroyo Secco AVA. He attributes the complexity and intensity of this wine to a combination of the perfect match between clone and the unique growing conditions there and to attentive winemaking.

The Cedar Lane vineyard began life in the 1980s as a rootstock nursery that was eventually grafted over to Sauvignon Musque, Pinot Noir and Syrah in 2000 when grower and winemaker Mark Chesebro and his partners took it in hand.

According to Chesebro, he and other growers have preserved the Sauvignon Musque clone in Arroyo Secco because, as evidenced by the Picchetti bottling, “it delivers more complex and exciting flavors at a lower brix level than other Sauvignon Blanc clones which are very vegetal until they are over ripe.” Reason enough to persevere with a clone deemed “virused” and unceremoniously removed from the Foundation Plant Services registry.

Flavors of the Best of Show White mirror its aromas but are dialed up, amplified and racy. The wine is instantly mouth coating with layers of acidity from key lime, gooseberry, tart pineapple, candied Meyer lemon, white peach, honeydew and a persistent, citrus-driven finish.

Having stellar raw materials to work with is certainly an advantage but a wine of this caliber can’t exist without the intention of the winemaker. In a serendipitous twist of fate, Bruzus who mowed the lawn and helped in the tasting room at Picchetti while he was in high school returned there as associate winemaker in 2015. A graduate of Cal Poly, San Louis Obispo, he was previously an assistant winemaker at Chamisal Vineyards and for Tooth & Nail Winery making wine from the  Murmur Vineyard in Santa Maria and vineyards in Paso Robles.

At Picchetti, The Pantling Family’s primary focus is organically-farmed Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and “Picchetti clone” head trained, dry farmed Zinfandel from vines planted in 1896 by the original Picchetti family on Montebello Road. “We specialize in diversity,” said Bruzus who sources a wide range of varieties from small vineyards in Arroyo Seco, Carneros, Paso Robles, Clements Hills, and Santa Clara Valley. “When our club members come to pick up their wine shipments on a quarterly basis, the wine list is almost completely different from the last time they visited.”

The winery makes 8,000 cases of wine a year and sells only from the website and tasting room which is housed in a historic cave and masonry barn nestled in the foothills of the Santa Cruz.

Iberian varieties victorious for Lodi’s St. Amant Winery

If you enjoy port, the rich, fortified wine of Portugal’s Douro Valley, you’re already a fan of Touriga. Touriga Nacional as it is known in Portugal is one of the five classic grape varieties that are blended to make Port wines. The Touriga variety that won this year’s Best of Show Red at the California State Fair made its way from Portugal to UC Davis where it was selected by St. Amant Winery’s late Tim Spencer and planted at an estate vineyard in Amador County in 1980.

Spencer who was an early adopter of Iberian varieties replanted the original vineyard, a flat site that sits at 200 feet in altitude, to the same Touriga clone in 1994. “Touriga has continued to perform exceptionally well on the heavier alluvial clay soils here which add more concentration and higher levels of tannins to the wines,” said Stuart Spencer who became winemaker at the Lodi winery in 2006.


Barbara St. Amant Spencer and Stuart Spencer

This late ripening, small-berried variety benefits from the cool air that spills off of the nearby Sierras; a key factor that helps the grapes retain acidity and lends freshness to the wines. St. Amant’s Touriga is a richly textured wine with distinct violet aromas and a spicy red fruit character. “We originally vinified it in the Port style and used the grape in dry wine blends,” said Spencer. Today’s version of The Old Soldier ($21 SRP) is a monovarietal Touriga that was destemmed in small lots and aged in neutral oak barrels.

“Touriga is expressive and the wine style in any given year is always going to be dictated by what the vintage gives us. 2016 was a darker vintage with amplified flavors and 15 % abv.” When asked about the name of the wine, Spencer replied, “We have an old dump truck on the property that we fondly called the ‘Old Soldier’ and we felt it was a good name for a wine from an old vineyard site. Both are a testament to our 40-year history of working the land.”

The future for Touriga looks bright as more California vintners are sourcing the grapes and St. Amant has grafted over additional acres to meet that demand. Spencer also sees Touriga as a natural rosé blending grape which means it’s very likely he has a Touriga rosé in the works. The winery produces several Iberian varieties including Tempranillo aka Tinta Roriz, another key port variety, and Verdelho, a crisp lemony white wine in addition to award winning Zinfandel, Barbera and Petite Syrah.

This is the second Best of Show Red award for St. Amant Winery which celebrates its 40th anniversary of winegrowing and winemaking next year. In 2016 Spencer won with an Amador County 2014 “The Road Less Traveled” Tempranillo ($18). “Our business continues to grow as consumers discover Lodi as a destination for enotourism and superb wine quality,” he said. In addition to his role as St. Amant winemaker and vintner, Spencer is the Executive Director of the Lodi Winegrape Commission, an organization that represents more than 750 winegrape growers and 85 wineries in the Lodi American Viticulture Area (AVA).

Imagery repeats as CA State Fair California Winery of the Year

In a repeat performance, Imagery Estate Winery founded by Joe Benziger in 1985 has been honored for the second year running by the California State Fair as the 2018 Golden State Winery of the Year. Benziger, who was at the helm for the 2017 award, has now retired but serves as guide and mentor for his second daughter Jamie Benziger, 31, who stepped up as winemaker in 2018.

With wines appellated from Pine Mountain-Cloverdale Peak, Sonoma Valley, Sonoma County, North Coast, Paso Robles and California, Imagery had 22 award-winning wines represented in the 2018 competition. “2018 represents a milestone in many ways,” said Jamie Benziger. “It was an incredible honor to be acknowledged as Winery of the Year in 2017 and to receive the award again in my first year as winemaker is truly humbling.”


Jamie Benziger

2018 is also the first year Imagery’s California tier wines ($18 – $20) have been entered in to the competition. This California-appellated portfolio has been in development for the last few years as a collaboration between the father-daughter winemaking team. “The wines are designed to bridge the generational gap between Boomers and Millennials,” said Jamie Benziger. Developed as blends, eachof the four wines have a dominant variety but with a twist.

The Sauvignon Blanc is “enhanced” with 20 percent dry Muscat, Chardonnay gets a whisper of Chenin Blanc, Pinot Noir sees just 10 percent of Petit Verdot and Cabernet Sauvignon finds a comfortable blending partner in Petite Sirah. While all of the wines were awarded, both the 2016 Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc received Best of Class of Appellation awards with the latter also scoring Best of Region – White.

No easy feat given the number of entries in those categories and the range of styles competing for the honors. “For the last 33 years Imagery has been a 15,000-case direct to consumer-winery. The introduction of our California tier which is being distributed nationally is reaching a much wider audience,” said Jamie Benziger who anticipates that national visibility will draw more wine enthusiasts to the bucolic Glen Ellen winery.

Both the winery and the wines escaped damage from the wild fires that burned right up to the tasting room door during the final stages of harvest in 2017. “It’s important for people to know that our winery and Sonoma Valley are just as beautiful as ever and that we’re eager to share this with them.”

Like her father, Jamie Benziger is a hands on winemaker. Her interest in the craft quickened after she spent a harvest working in the lab at Benziger and in the cellar at Villa Maria in New Zealand. After graduating from Sonoma State University in 2009, Benziger turned her attention to the production end of the business.

“There came a point when I realized that winemaking held the inspiration for a lifelong career.” Working side by side with her father for the last few years while completing a winemaking certificate program at UC Davis, Jamie began paying close attention to what makes him tick as a winemaker. It’s something she likens to the intuitive school of winemaking, “it’s a happy balance between formal education and learning on the job.”

Paraiso Vineyard: The backbone of the Santa Lucia Highlands AVA

Spanish missionaries at Mission Soledad first planted vineyards in the region now known as the Santa Lucia Highlands AVA in the late 18th century. But winegrowing on the windswept terraces of the Santa Lucia mountain range began in earnest in 1973 when Rich and Claudia Smith established the Paraiso Vineyard. Parasio is the tenth iconic vineyard to be acknowledged by the California State Fair as Vineyard of the Year.

The Smiths were among a handful of pioneering winegrowers in the region and their early successes enabled them to plant Paraiso to Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Riesling. These original varieties selected by Rich Smith have now become hallmarks for one of the coolest climate AVAs in the state.

For the next sixteen years the Smiths focused on growing grapes but in 1989 they became vintners and bottled their first Pinot Noir and Chardonnay under the Paraiso Springs label. Referred to as the “home ranch,” Paraiso is home base for the company’s offices, shop, winery and tasting room from which they manage 3200 acres of wine grapes in Monterey County. With 800 acres under vine in the Santa Lucia Highlands AVA, they are the largest grower in that region.

Rich Smith has been an outspoken advocate for Monterey County viticulture and in 1991 he, Nikki Hahn and Phil Johnson led the effort that succeeded in establishing the Santa Lucia Highlands as an American Viticultural Area. His leadership efforts didn’t stop there; Smith held the office of President of the local Farm Bureau and the California Association of Wine Growers and was a founding member of many industry organizations.

Today, second-generation winegrower Jason Smith, President and CEO of Smith Family Wines, runs a fully-vertically integrated business that was founded on the Parasio Vineyard. “We’re growing fifteen different clones on our 350-acre home ranch estate vineyard: seven Pinot Noirs, five Chardonnays and three Syrahs,” said Smith. “As the demand for Santa Lucia Highlands fruit has grown, we’ve been the backbone of programs that make it possible for wineries to have SLH-appellated wines in their portfolios.”

The iconic Paraiso vineyard has been farmed for decades using the Sustainability in Practice program known as SIP. Rich Smith was early adopter of this rigorous vineyard and winery certification program and the Smith Family vineyards were among the first to be SIP Certified in Monterey County. Jason has continued those efforts and from 2013 the ranch has been solar powered expanding the company’s commitment to green practices.

Looking forward, Jason is focused on furthering wine quality for the Smith Family labels. “We’re working to identify cru-quality sites on the estate and vinifying different lots with a focus on single clones in a concerted effort to find the best of the best.” The future looks bright for the iconic Paraiso as Jason and the Smith family builds on his father’s legacy and advances the family’s stewardship of the vineyard.

Shaw Organic: Is This the Next Miracle from Bronco Wine & Trader Joe’s?

The Wine Economist Mike Veseth on Fred Franzia’s latest Trader Joe’s brand Shaw Organic: Is This the Next Miracle from Bronco Wine & Trader Joe’s?