Tupperware Wine for the Souless
What is one to think of a winery that completely abandons the idea of "Winemaker as Artist"? That is the question that finally formed in my mind after reading David Darlington’s article in the New York Times Magazine last Sunday that focused on Enologix.
For those of you who are unaware of the service that the Sonoma-based company Enologix provides, let me quote from Darlington’s article:
"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."
Translation: They tell winemakers what to do in the vineyard and in the winery to produce a high scoring wine with Robert Parker and/or the Wine spectator.
But to be even clearer about what wineries do that have hired Enologix: These wineries have completely abandoned the idea of winemaker as artist and chosen to embrace the creation of "Tupperware Wines", wines that can be stamped out using a single formula to produce a wine of singular character. Essentially, paint-by-numbers winemaking.
There is nothing inherently wrong with painting by numbers. The fact is, at the age of 10 my own sister was highly proficient at staying inside the lines and created a lovely rendition of a rambunctious kitten from the paint-by-numbers set our grandmother gave her for Christmas. It was a cute picture and well rendered. But it was not art.
Neither are the wines created with with the help of Leo McCloskey’s Enologix winemaking formula.
According to Darlington’s article, clients of Enologix pay $20,000 and up to be advised by the company as to what practices need to be carried out in the vineyard and in the cellar to create a wine that will be rewarded with 90 points or higher by Robert Parker and the Spectator. We are talking about one particular style of wine here: low tannin, low acidity, extraordinarily fruit forward and laden with oak. The temptation to make a wine that scores 90 or more with these two critics is understandable. The American wine drinking public as well as retailers, restaurateurs and distributors have all generally given themselves over to the idea that the only wines that sell are those that receive these kind of scores from these critics. It is of course the classic self-fulfilling prophecy. Because they believe these are the only kind of wines that can be sold at higher prices they tend to be the wines they buy at higher prices.
However, let’s be clear about something. This style of wine is not necessarily the higher quality wine. In fact, Both the Wine Spectator critics and Robert Parker will tell you that the best wine is the one you like best. It just so happens that these to wine critics like these types of wines best.
Leo McCloskey, however, seems to have drunk the Kool Aid when he says of the style of wines he directs his clients at Enologix to make as:
"the vast majority of successful, flagship mainstream wines, the most elegant and popular wines in the world."
This of course is not true, particularly with regard to the most "the most elegant" wines in the world. But what’s worse than his being wrong is that he knows he is wrong yet McCloskey chooses to make the statement nonetheless.
Joel Peterson, one of the founders of Ravenswood Winery and someone with a real familiarity with Enologix and wine gets it right:
"It’s a very narrow definition of taste. Part of the charm and beauty of wine is its idiosyncrasy, but when everybody tries to hit the same sweet spot, it’s like making soda pop….as a consumer you have to ask what you’re paying for.”
You can’t be particularly upset with Enologix. They simply provide a service that some wineries, apparently, want. Nor can you be upset with the critics upon whose palate Enologix basis their business. They are honestly telling their readers their opinions of various wines. If you want to be offended, you need to look at the wineries that are using the Enologix service.
Most art is the same. It results from a combination of technique, intuition and empathy. The result, when applied to a medium, is a singular vision, something that can be owned by the artist and revered by an audience for it’s unique understanding of the medium and the subject matter. This applies to woodworking, oils, sculpture, architecture, songwriting, poetry and wine. Yet, the Enologix system of winemaking forces the winery and winemaker to completely abandon any pretense of artistry in winemaking in favor of factory wine in which the formula is dictator by the market at best and a scientist at worst. In fact, I can’t see the point of hiring a winemaker if you are going to hire Enologix. Enologix will tell you how and when to prune, how to irrigate, when to drop fruit from the vine, when to harvest, what kind of barrels to use and how long to leave it in barrel. One might as well just hire a $35,000 a year cellar rat in a lab coat.
But let me be clear about something. There is nothing inherently wrong with this approach to winemaking. The result is in fact wine. However, it is the kind of wine that has no soul, no personal stamp, no inclination toward immortality, and no pretense of being a product of artistry. It’s understandable why most of Enologix’s clients prefer to remain anonymous.
For those who like a wine meant to be drunk young, wine that takes the place of food, wine that avoids the complexity of herbal notes and wine that is flashily flabby, the Enologix winery is their hero. And make no mistake, there is a market for this kind of wine.
Likewise, there is also a market for Two-Buck Chuck, a wine so similar to the Enologix wine as to defy differentiation. Both Two-Buck Chuck and Enologix wines are designed for a single palate, are made formulaically in a lab environment, and meant to appeal to a market-tested palate defined by laziness.
Thankfully, there is a sturdy market for wines of individuality. There is a market for wines that reflect the intuition of Gary Farrell, the respectful touch of Michel Berthoud, the consistent vision of Walter Schug, the deft touch of Milla Handley and the smashing, attacking approach of Adrian Fog’s Stewart Dorman.
These, and others, are the wines that prove the insipidness of he Enologix-made wines. These are the people who make wine the remarkable artifact that keep us coming back for more because they deliver a personal stamp that tells a story of a person and a vineyard and a moment in time.
It is important to note also that the Enologix wine is one that dismisses any nod to the idea of terroir. As Enologix’s Leo McCloskey notes:
"The consumer doesn’t need to know about terroir. He just wants to know whether a wine is worth $28 or whatever he’s paying for it"
McCloskey should know better. Actually, he does know better. He is a former winemaker. But importantly, he would do well to talk to the owners of the "Floodgate Vineyard" in Anderson Valley, the "To-Kalon Vineyard" in Napa, "Brown Ranch" in Carneros, or Barricia Vineyard" in Sonoma Valley. I’ve been a critic of the idea of terroir and the transferal of a vineyard’s essential character into a bottled wine. But I’ve never suggested that it be demolished as an idea. I’ve suggested that it can be a useful concept on a small, vineyard by vineyard scale and when understood by a caring winemaker. The Enologix wines have moved beyond the idea of a terroir driven wine to a wine driven by the palate of someone they read six times per year.
When you abandon your search for artistry in winemaking you abandon the reasons for drinking wine and caring about wine, accept to quench a thirst or build a collection to keep behind glass. When you abandon an artist’s temperament in the making of wine you abandon your soul. Faust would appreciate the service offered up by Enologix.
Reverse Engineering creates… Frankenwine?
Imagine this. A very good wine, smiles and nods all around, generations of wine-making labour and wisdom poured in the magical alchemy of a bottle. Then there is a lab that analyzes the good wine and finds the footprint to recreate its qualities …not…
I share your concerns about — and condemnation of — wineries that completely give themselves over to McCloskey and his, uh, magic. But I doubt all or even most of his clients do that. McCloskey provides data to folks who operate in a fairly nebulous realm. This may provide varying amounts of guidance and insight, but mostly helps make them feel a little more comfortable about what they are doing.
Great post, Tom. A very eloquent statement of art vs. mass appeal. And I think you were even-handed in saying that “[wine produced by the numbers is] still wine”.
The basic problem is that (a) there is a tremendous number of wines released each year (10,000+ by some accounts), and (b) people must often rely on other people (e.g. reviewers) to help allocate [sadly] finite wine dollars in their effort to enjoy “the best wine” (whatever that is).
IMHO the best reviewers say, “This is a great example of what can be done with a wine,” so that people have a benchmark to start from (imagine where we’d be if Two-Buck Chuck was considered a 94+ wine!). I really like the WSJ “Tastings” column for this reason. They frequently encourage readers to look for a class of wines, not a particular bottle.
The next step is to seek out wines that match or exceed that benchmark experience. Sadly, many people just get hung up on buying the reviewed wines, as opposed to enjoying whatever a given wine has to offer, taking the occasional mistake as part of the whole discovery process.
But, to each their own. Even with Enologix and Wal-Mart, I doubt we’re in danger of all wines tasting alike anytime soon.
Whoa, is it too stoney of me to make the following analogy:
When Andy Warhol came on the scene, his silkscreened everyday objects made us ask, “what is art?” Warhol killed the post modern era dead. Is the same thing happening to wine? All of this just smacks like looking at a painting of a Campbell’s soup can, the wine equivalent being a high octane Shiraz. I know it’s critically rated but I just don’t get it. I just can’t see the art. Wine INDUSTRY is new, but this is not a new debate.
What I like best about your post, Tom, is not what you said, exactly–it’s the passion with which you expressed yourself, a healthy antidote to the uniformity not only of so many wines today but the pussy-footing crap that passes as wine criticism and commentary. Thank you for that air-clearing.
I am starting to wonder if that article wasn’t the turning point of the recent history of the wine industry, not only in California but also in places like Piemonte and Australia and even in Bordeaux. People seem to be united in saying, “Enough already!” I certainly hope so.
Herewith, a miscellany of vaguely interrelated wine items, served at room temperature, built up in bits and pieces over the past few weeks until they have burst forth as this loose baggy monster of a post, which launches itself with
Art on the label not in the bottle! At my $7 and $13 price points, my industrial strength wine better be cool and fruity with a nice odor. I will never pay up for a 94+ wine, but I will be able to get high quality and large quantity of excellent wines from my Costco.
I did not complain about the Two-Buck Chuck. But those farmboys in Napa wanted more money at the winery that it cost at the Safeway! It is only Wine Spectator keeps me from paying $28 for 87 point wine!