3 min read

on wine quality

As I worked my first couple of harvests, took classes, went to more tastings, and tried wines from countries I hadn't even heard of, a unified theory of wine quality and assessment began to form for me, startling in its simplicity.

note: as mentioned in my previous post, i've started taking online classes at uc davis in pursuit of a winemaking certification. currently i'm enrolled in a wine production class with discussion topic / essay question assignments, so i thought it would be fun to share my thoughts here as well.

Discussion: Let's have a discussion about the definition of wine quality. Please define your quality wine. What is the wine you would like to make? Why? What/who influences your definition of wine quality?

My definition of wine quality has changed considerably over the years. As a young student, coming from wine country but with no experience aside from a passing recognition of names on labels, I made sweeping statements about certain varietals or locations being "better" than others. (My true talent at the time laid in finding the most "drinkable" wines under $10 at the local Trader Joe's.) As I got older, learned a little more, and made a little more money, I fell into the trap of believing that critical praise and high prices denote quality wine. This broadened my palate but was a hollow and cynical way to assess wine.

More recently, I started to learn about the "natural wine" movement, which has somewhat of a cultural epicenter in Oakland, CA where I live. Here were exciting wines, wildly different from the bold and punchy Napa wines I grew up with, or the bold and punchy South American wines I could afford as a student, or the bold and punchy French wines I was convinced were the pinnacle of quality as a young adult. And so I began to develop ideas about novelty, uniqueness, and counterculture, and how these concepts could relate to wine quality. My brain in particular craves novelty, and so in a tasting scenario it's often the most unique or surprising cuvée that stands out, rather than perhaps a more refined or elegant or typical expression. However it's so easy in the natural wine world to fall into the trap of "purity" and moral absolutes regarding wine quality, and this I wanted to avoid.

There are a couple of competing schools of thought in the mainstream regarding wine quality - judging on the absence of flaws vs the presence of desired traits, or proximity to an ideal. The former is considerably easier to measure and standardize, as flaws are often defined by the presence of particular compounds or bacteria (TCA/cork taint, volatile acidity/acetic acid/vinegar, etc). However, simply saying 'this wine doesn't taste spoiled' is an exceedingly low bar for quality. The latter is highly subjective, both in the assessment of the flavors and traits present in the wine but also in the selection of the ideal itself. I do think it's closer to the correct definition, to ask what is typical of the region or style and to assess based on those traits, but 'proximity to typicity' as a measure of quality has the result of stifling creativity and punishing novelty.

As I worked my first couple of harvests, took classes, went to more tastings, and tried wines from countries I hadn't even heard of, a unified theory of wine quality and assessment began to form for me, startling in its simplicity: What was intended by the winemaker, and how successful were they in their execution? (E.g. is that Brett* in there because its rustic aroma harmonizes with fruity, spicy notes in the wine, or is it jarringly there because you got lazy with sanitation?)

I've had the good fortune to speak to winemakers who I respect deeply and who make extremely delicious wine, and the thing they have in common is this: they don't define themselves by any label or dogma. They intervene minimally, but with intention, and don't allow ideology to prevent them from making interventions that the wine does require in order to fit their program. They select fruit and vineyards carefully, they use quantitative and qualitative inputs equally for decision-making, they eschew trends in favor of their own unique vision.

I'm not sure what my unique vision is yet. I think that's something that will take me several more vintages to develop, and a lifetime to perfect.

*Brettanomyces, a yeast that imparts strong "rustic" or "barnyard" aromas, generally considered to be a flaw but common in natural wines and saison beers