The Chemistry of a 90+ Wine (New York Times)


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.

David Darlington is the author of ”Zin: The History and Mystery of Zinfandel” (originally published as ”Angels’ Visits”), among other books, and writes the Short Finish column for Wine & Spirits magazine.