The Emperor Has No Clothes

A story in which a curious Somm’s questions at a major West Coast conference cause a wild outburst; three wines are presented as commercially viable but taste like corn nuts; and BIG WINE tries to mask the sugar content in Chardonnay.

On the second day of classes at SommCon San Diego – which, overall, was a wonderful conference – I should have known things might get exciting the moment I sat down and saw the wine line up on my mats. Out of sixteen glasses, wines 7, 9, and 11 were whole cluster carbonic maceration of Grenache/Mourvedre; Sangiovese; and Carigñan, respectively. The class was titled, “The Same But Different: Cross Comparisons Of The Same Wine Made In Different Stylistic Formats”.

CAST OF CHARACTERS

Real names will not be used, as my purpose here is not to embarrass anyone, but rather, to have a little fun at recounting this most interesting of classroom experiences.

–BIG WINE (Male, winemaker for BIG WINE). This man works for REALLY BIG WINE – you know, the stuff you find on the bottom shelf of grocery stores in big jugs and boxes, but also the parent company of many popular brands of wines commonly found in big floor stack displays.

–CBM GUY (Male, winemaker/owner of very small CA winery, panel member). I’ve called this man “CBM GUY” because he said he likes “experimenting with carbonic maceration”.

–DYNAMIC DUO #1 (husband/wife winemaking team of very small CA winery, panel member). Wife attended U.C. Davis and told the audience she and her husband argue constantly about winemaking techniques and styles. Maybe TMI.

–CONDESCENDING DUO #2 (husband/wife winemaking team of small CA winery, panel member). I have named these characters mainly based on the wife’s condescending comments and responses to several of my questions. The husband seemed pretty likeable.

–EXCITABLE WOMAN (Attendee – not a panel member; Wine business consultant who told me she is “involved” in a small OR winery). I had met her in the hall outside the classroom before we were allowed inside, and we chatted for a while and exchanged business cards.

ME (Attendee and annoying question-asker).

 

PRESENTATION BEGINS

The class was pretty full – one of the bigger classes I had attended over the two days at SommCon and definitely the class where the most wines were poured. The winemakers were seated at a table at one end of the classroom and remained seated during the class. They were generally participating as a panel, although each did have a chance to introduce his/her/their wines.

The presentation began with BIG WINE, who came prepared with Powerpoint slides. BIG WINE’s presentation included a discussion of wines #3 and #4, both Chardonnay. Wine #3 was characterized as “dry”; wine #4 was characterized as “sweet”. A Powerpoint slide presentation showed a chart for the finished wines, supposedly showing alcohol content, acid content, the pH levels, and the residual sugar. (Stay tuned. I say “supposedly” because the chart was suspect as my later questions to BIG WINE revealed.)

Next, the presentation was from DYNAMIC DUO #1. Wines #5 and #6 were Roussanne. The side-by-side comparison was meant to demonstrate the difference between barrel fermentation and barrel aging in a 60-gallon, 2-year old barrel with medium toast and a combination of oak and acacia (wine #5), versus fermentation and aging in a 300 gallon flex tank (wine #6). We were told both wines would be blended with Grenache Blanc and Picpoul Blanc to create a white blend. (Flex tanks are basically a lower cost way to age wine, without having to buy oak barrels for aging. It gets the product to market sooner.)

The next presentation was by CBM GUY. He presented wines #7 and #8. Both wines were a 50/50 blend of Grenache/Mourvedre. Wine #7 was vinified using whole cluster carbonic maceration for seven days then aged 10 months in flex tanks. Wine #8 was vinified the same way but spent 18 months aging in flex tanks. Both these wines tasted to me like canned strawberries and tomatoes on the vine. Wine #8 was perhaps a little more muted than #7, but otherwise much the same in its aromas in the glass and taste on the palate. We were told by CBM GUY that he loves the spice and game notes of the wines, and later, when I asked why he vinified the wines using carbonic maceration, he shrugged and said it was “an experiment.” (OK. Maybe that kind of experimentation is profitable but I doubt it. I personally didn’t care for either of them. The women behind me didn’t care for them either as I heard them whispering. However, one woman waxed quite lyrical about them, so I suppose it’s a matter of preference, although when I hear someone say that a wine “dances” I really have to roll my eyes.)

THINGS START TO GET INTERESTING – NOT IN A GOOD WAY

CBM GUY next presented wines #9 and #10. Both were 100% Sangiovese. Wine #9 was vinified using whole cluster carbonic maceration. Wine #10 was crushed and destemmed and vinified in a more traditional way, although my notes did not capture much else about #10 because I was, instead, distracted by the very odd taste I experienced from wine #9. I had never tasted anything like it. I tried to identify it because it seemed familiar, but simply wrote down in my notes, “savory” followed by a question mark. We were told by CBM GUY that these two wines would be blended to add complexity to the finished wine which would be a 100% Sangiovese.

I was curious whether anyone would mention the finish on wine #9 because it was so distinct. One attendee mentioned that she thought #10 showed volatile acidity and CBM GUY replied to that. I waited to see whether anyone else might say something about the strange finish on wine #9. (Why take a bullet if someone else will, right? I was pretty sure my question would not be appreciated.) No one asked the question, so I took the plunge and raised my hand.

ME: “I taste something on the finish of wine #9 that I’ve never tasted before, on any wine. I’m having trouble identifying it, but it’s familiar. I wrote down “savory” with a question mark in my notes. I’m curious whether anyone else tastes it, and I’m wondering if it’s a result of the carbonic maceration.”

CONDESCENDING DUO #2 (the wife): Picks up wine #9, tastes, it and states “There is something nutty on it.”

ATTENDEE, name unknown, male: “It’s like corn nuts.”

ME: “That’s it! Corn nuts!”

Audible murmuring from the audience, some uncomfortable laughter.

Then, the panel of experts began a dialogue amongst themselves. This dialogue lasted for a few minutes and they were all talking, or talking over each other. After listening to this go on for a while, and starting to hear mumbling and whispers from attendees around me, I again raised my hand.

ME: “You guys are talking amongst yourselves up there, and I’d really like to understand what the discussion is about. Since I’ve never encountered this corn nut taste before on any wine, I want to know more about it.”

A discussion then ensued amongst the panel members about micro-oxygenation. There was no definitive answer during this discussion to a follow up question I asked BIG WINE about why he uses micro-oxygenation to get rid of corn chip flavors. I let it go because the discussion had taken up quite a bit of class time.

EXCITABLE OUTBURST OCCURS

The next two wines were presented by DYNAMIC DUO #1 (This was the same team that presented the Roussanne wines #5 and #6.) Both of these wines were 100% Carigñan. Wine #11 was vinified using whole cluster carbonic fermentation. Wine #12 was destemmed/crushed. Both had the corn nut taste on the finish. (At this point in the course I’m asking myself: What is the fascination with carbonic maceration? Don’t these people know their wine tastes horrible?) When it was time for questions, I raised my hand.

ME: “I get a corn nut taste on both these wines. It seems that carbonic maceration may the cause, but since I’m tasting corn nut on both these wines I’m not sure (since each wine had been vinified differently). Can anyone address that?”

Audience is audibly, but softly, murmuring in response to my question. I’m not sure if they are as curious as I am about the taste of these wines, or if some people are just getting irritated with my questions.

EXCITEABLE WOMAN (While speaking, she rose halfway out of her chair and kept turning around while talking, sometimes facing back toward the audience and sometimes speaking to the panel. She was quite visibly excited.) ”I think it’s really important to point out that most of these wines that we are tasting are unfinished! I think it’s fair to say that most of the people in this class are not wine makers! They don’t know what it’s like to create a wine, and all the decisions that are made and all the heartache that can accompany each decision! The best analogy I can give is that when you pour your finished wine for someone, it’s like standing naked before them and hoping they like what they see! And, if you let them taste from the barrel before it’s finished, it’s like giving birth and then standing before them naked and hoping they like what they see!”

Much louder murmuring in response from the audience, a couple of claps, and more nervous laughter.

ATTENDEE, name unknown, female: “I really appreciate you saying that because that’s what this is all about, we all like to geek out on wine, and I, for one, really appreciate all of you (referring to the panel) sharing your wines with us today.” (A not so subtle reference to the fact that she apparently thought my questions/comments about corn nut flavors were rude, or out of line.)

A couple more claps from the audience.

ME: “Well, it’s one thing to geek out about wine, but ultimately, the wine needs to be enjoyable or we Somm’s can’t sell it. I’m not trying to offend anyone here, but a wine that tastes like corn nuts on the finish is not a wine I would enjoy drinking, nor would I be able to recommend it if I were selling it. It seems that it may be the result of a fault, given what BIG WINE was saying about trying to get rid of corn chip flavors using micro-oxygenation.”

CONDESCENDING DUO #2 (wife): “Well, it seems that the class is about evenly divided about these wines, am I right?” (It seemed to me that she jumped in here to avoid having anyone answer the question as to whether corn nut flavors in a red wine represented a fault or off-flavor.)

Audience murmuring, some people state loud enough to hear that they like the wines, others, more quietly are stating they do not like the wines. I hear the women behind me talking about how awful the wines are. After the class, one of them came up to me and introduced herself, and told me she couldn’t even bring herself to taste the wines after smelling them.

 

THE EMPEROR HAS NO CLOTHES

I equate my questions about the corn nut flavors to be equivalent to the little boy in the fable asking, “Why does the Emperor have no clothes, Mommy?” And, I came away from that class with the definite impression that we, as Somm’s are expected to say, “The Emperor is wearing such beautiful clothes!” if the wine maker is in the room. Well, that isn’t doing our profession any favors, and as hard as it may be for a wine maker to hear that his/her wine has a flaw, I think we Somm’s are duty bound to call it as we taste it. This was a classroom situation, after all.

Eventually, due to further prodding by me, the class was told by DYNAMIC DUO #1 (the wife) that the corn nut flavor would “evolve out of the wine”. I am not convinced by this answer. No one on the panel ever answered my questions about corn nut flavors directly.

Clearly, the two very small wineries showing wines that were vinified using whole cluster carbonic maceration are doing things a bit outside the wine making box. There’s nothing wrong, in theory, with making a carbonic maceration, tutti-frutti red wine that is not from Gamay – if you like that kind of thing. But tutti-frutti combined with corn nut is not a pleasant sensory experience. I find it hard to understand how anyone could think that it is.

BIG WINE TRIES TO HIDE LEVEL OF RESIDUAL SUGAR IN HIS WINES

I will skip the presentation of wines #13 through #16 from CONDESCENDING DUO #2. At this point in the class, all sixteen of the wines had been discussed. The audience was asked if there were any questions. I waited to see if anyone else had questions then I proceeded with my other questions.

ME: “I have a question about the figures in your slides regarding residual sugar (RS) on wines #3 and #4. Wine #3, the “dry” Chardonnay, showed a figure of .18. Wine #4, the “sweet” Chardonnay, showed a figure of 2.08. Can you explain those figures?

BIG WINE: “It’s a percentage.”

ME: “A percentage of what?”

BIG WINE: “It’s a percentage based on grams per milliliter.”

ME: “Can you translate that into the residual sugar based on grams per liter please, since that is the standard we are used to?”

AUDIENCE MEMBER, male, name unknown: “It’s 20 grams.”

BIG WINE: “That’s right, 20g/L.”

Very audible surprise and loud murmurs from the audience here: many people present understood that a wine with 20g/L of RS is a really sweet wine! And, BIG WINE had tried to mask that fact on his Powerpoint slide!

ME: “I’d like to know why wine makers are so reluctant to put the RS figure on a wine tech sheet when you already give us the acid, the pH, etc. Why not also tell us the RS number?”

AUDIENCE MEMBER, female, name unknown: “What’s RS?”

CONDESCENDING DUO #2 (the wife): “I don’t think the average consumer would understand that number.”

AUDIENCE MEMBER, female, name unknown: “What’s a tech sheet?”

The panel again starts to talk amongst themselves and talk over each other. At one point I hear one of the men on the panel state he will start putting the RS figure on his tech sheets, although he also doesn’t think that consumers will understand it. There is quite a bit of audience murmuring too, during this discussion, people are talking to their neighbors about the issue.

CBM GUY (apropos of nothing): “I’ve tried to put extra information on my wine labels before. In fact, one time, I put on my label that 40% of the grapes were from X vintage, and 60% of the grapes were from Y vintage, and the TTB made me take all the labels off the bottles.”

ME: “That’s because if you put a vintage on your label, it must consist of 95% of grapes from that vintage. The U.S. wine regs are about truth in labeling. But, going back to the issue of putting RS on a tech sheet, I think it’s condescending to say that the consumer won’t understand it. I understand it, the standards are understood in the industry as an expression of grams per liter, and you are already giving me information in regards to total acidity, plus you give me the pH level on your tech sheets, so why not add the RS?”

CONDESCENDING DUO #2 (the wife): Well, I don’t think putting RS on the tech sheet or the label will be understood by the average consumer. They might look at it and think they are buying a sweet wine, when they aren’t.” (Her second statement to that effect.)

Loud audience murmuring, people not talking quietly any longer. My back and forth with CBM GUY and with CONDESCENDING DUO #2 (the wife) is bothering some people.

CONDESCENDING DUO #2 (the wife): “Well, we’re out of time! I hope you all enjoyed the class. Thank you for coming.” (She clearly wants to cut me off and for the discussion to end.)

Isn’t the real issue regarding residual sugar that wine makers don’t want the consumer to understand how much sugar is really in their wine, and that if the consumer knew the real numbers, consumers might not buy it? Sugar, not fat, after all, has now been called out as the main contributor to heart disease.

WHAT DID I LEARN FROM THIS CLASS?

Truth be told, what I learned from this class is the following:

–When wine makers are present and discussing their own wines, remember: The Emperor Has Beautiful Clothes!

–I cannot necessarily take at face value the facts presented to me by a wine maker. BIG WINE clearly tried to mask the RS level in his “sweet” Chardonnay. When directly questioned, he still tried to mask the information he presented in his slide by first stating it was a percentage (percentages only make sense if you understand what the number is a percentage of), then trying to obfuscate further by stating it was a percentage of grams per milliliter (not the standard unit of measurement for labeling purposes). It was only when someone better at math than I am, called out the correct answer in grams per liter that BIG WINE admitted that his wine contained 20g/L of RS.

–Two of the three very small wine makers at this class tried to pass off wines with faults as actually being a viable commercial product, and we were told that off flavors would evolve out of two of these wines. Is it possible that these wine makers were unable to discern such a clear fault in their own wines, or are we suddenly being expected to accept garlicky nutty flavors in wine as the latest geek fetish?

–Perhaps wine makers don’t want the American consumer to know all the facts about their wines…just some of the facts. Besides, we in the class were told that as consumers, we are not smart enough to understand the facts even if we had them!

So there you have it. This was, by far, the most interesting class – for all the wrong reasons – that I’ve ever attended in my wine education journey. The cynic in me suspects the reason for the unbalanced panel had more to do with trying to showcase three small wineries to a room full of Somm’s and Somm wannabe’s than it had to do with actually learning anything useful. I think that strategy may have backfired, however!