Sunday, February 14, 2010

Testing & Tasting

Brad Post:
After reading my brothers posting yesterday about “writing on wine” I began to think more about the influences on my own writing.  As a relative newcomer to wine critique, mostly a response to my introduction to wine course, my experiences and insights are tainted from an academic perspective.  Understanding experiences of visitors was my gig for awhile, using a pragmatic approach, meaning it could be purely experimental quantitative or headlong into qualitative methods such as naturalistic observation. In any case my approach to wine appreciation or wine making is muddied from my screwy philosophical position: post-positivism / pre-constructivism.  It’s my own version of a philosophy of science that gives me lots of latitude in understanding things.  These days the experience I am striving to understand is Wine Appreciation and Wine Making.
Wine appreciation is totally different compared to wine making.  You see, as I am making wine a different part of my brain is activated, the part that gets off on science.  When making wine, I am critically looking at the various grape parameters; first I visually inspect the new grapes to make sure they look sound, then I take a good sniff to make sure they smell right (i.e., they don’t have an unpleasant, vinegary odor), and then a more quantitative process begins.  This quantitative process can be as simple as taking a refractor reading, a measurement of how much sugar the grape must possesses, and tests for pH, acidity, and calculations for additions (e.g., yeast, enzymes, tannins, etc.).  Not that wine making is formulaic but there tends to be a lot of science in the cellar these days.
Complementary to my wine making is wine appreciation, the artist side of my brain, where I am encouraged to release my inner-prose. The simple act of attempting to gain a deeper understanding of a wine by first viewing, then smelling, and finally tasting is more difficult than I initially anticipated.  When going through my tasting ritual, instead of identifying specific aromas like grapefruit or honey, I may have a recollection of a time long ago, a faint dusty, earthy quality of a memory and then romantically inspired words to spew forth.  A very different experience from wine making, one might even say there is a qualitative difference between the two.  I enjoy both immensely.
There is harmony between the craft of wine making and the appreciation of wine. Last Thursday I set-up my wine laboratory at the winery and spent the day conducting our regular, periodic wine tests.  My bench, a portable lab table, provided ample space within the cellar to construct a series of wine tests. Every so often wine makers need to assess pH, acidity, and sulfur-dioxide (SO2, aka: sulfites) in the aging wine and adjust, as necessary, to keep the wine happy and protected from micro-critters and oxygen.  In front of me (from left to right) is an array of scientific devices; first is a Titratable Acidity (TA) assembly where, just like in high school chemistry lab, we titrate to determine the acidity in the wine. Crowded next to that is my desktop pH meter where, after calibration, I take pH readings of the wine. And to my far right is a Free SO2 Assembly, another elaborate set-up that might look illicit to someone who hasn’t been in a lab for awhile. (Photo: from my home wine lab).
Lab days tend to be hurry-up-and-wait days.  It goes something like this: take samples from the various fermentation tanks, test for pH, run an acidity test and calculate TA, and then conduct a Free SO2 test (add additional SO2 if required).  Each test takes a different amount of time and precision: pH, quick and easy; TA, about 2 minutes unless I screw up the titration (then I have to re-do it); and finally the Free SO2 test which takes at least 10 minutes to run and a bit more for the math calculations.  All told, it takes a better part of a day to run a series of laboratory tests for only our white wines (I didn’t finish them all either).
I taste, I test, and I try to remember.  Testing is a meditative effort, repeated tasks, calculations and formulas; Tasting is also a contemplative process, smelling, tasting, and feeling.  Each aspect, whether tasting for learning or appreciation, or tasting to assess a fermenting wine, is a complementary process – one without the other and something would be amiss.  There are a lot of things I don’t know about wine – but one thing is certain, I will continue to strive to understand wine from both a scientific point of view and from an artistic/philosophical perspective.


  1. I'm an idiot (spelled Ph.D.) , but I always counsel people never to do this themselves. Lab work is not selling or producing...we just call it "non revenue-generating space." Have a lab do it for you (how about your friends at Iowa State?) cheaply and accurately. A good Orion 5-star pH/conductivity/DO/ISE is all anyone needs in his or her lab. All that SO2 stuff (besides the Foss or equivalent) doesn't work anyway. Signed, a recovering wine "scientist"

  2. We like to call it "vertical integration" but I take your point and agree.

    For many of us in the new wine industry we've come very quickly from making wine in our garage/basement and doing everything ourselves to the point where we're making thousands of gallons/year. There are still wineries that neglect to do the most basic of testing - so getting them to believe and trust in the results (of either in-home or sent to a lab) seems to be a bit of a challenge.

    As wines prematurely age on the shelves, drop crystals or develop haze, and become inadvertent sherry -- and, and...the wineries begin to suffer as a consequence (lose $$) -- then some will run to the testing labs to take advantage of the cheap and accurate findings. Those that fail to make the connection will ultimately fail or become a drag on the industry that makes cruddy wine.

    Thanks for your thoughts, Grant!