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Wine

Clark Smith’s Views on the Importance of Further Defining Terroir

As the Riverside International Wine Competition deadline for submitting wine for evaluation comes close to an end (this coming Friday, April 9), Clark Smith has taken the time to further explain his ideas to me, about his and Dan Berger’s experimenting with standards reform.

This Q&A is very revealing for what he and Dan believe, as regards to wines being judged. Hold onto your hats, boys and girls… Clark’s always got a lot to say, and this is no exception. His opinions, as always, are strong and provocative.

[Q] Clark, tell me how this concept has come about, to take Petite Sirah and begin to not only be judging it – as is always done in wine competitions, as a variety, but to also be doing the judging by appellation and evaluating if the wine is truly showing excellent appellation characteristics.

[Clark Smith]  As an outgrowth of my work in defining regional varietal identities for North American wines, I’ve received the cooperation of the Riverside International Wine Competition to experiment for the first time in any U.S. competition with the revolutionary concept of judging wines according to regional standards.

Recent published papers by statistician and winery owner Robert Hodgson [e.g., Wall Street Journal, 11/20/09] on judge unreliability and on the inconsistency of awards in 13 U.S. wine competitions have created a well-deserved scandal. Having judged hundreds of competitions over the last 30 years, I was elated that Dr. Hodgson blew the whistle, and it seems obvious to me that the primary problem is that judging cannot be effective without targeted profiles.

This year the Riverside International Wine Competition has consented to work with me on an experiment in which, for the Petite Sirah category only, judges are provided with the AVA on the label and, if available, regionally based style profile(s) for the AVA. These profiles are ideally submitted by AVA-based regional organizations such as winegrower associations, who in any case should have the final say. To get the ball rolling, I have been authorized to use the 21 regional profiles I developed at AppellationAmerica.com.

[Q] Why do you all judge today the way that you do?

[CS]  When I first began judging in the late ‘70’s, there were fewer than 100 wineries in California and nearly half the wines on the shelf had technical flaws such as VA, aldehyde, sulfides or excessive SO2. Thus,  it was easy to take 50 California Cabernets, discard the flawed wines, and organize your favorites for Bronze, Silver and Gold. In other words, in this tiny world of long ago, the varietal seemed to work as a judging category.

But in truth, this was never a good idea. Today there are thousands of Cabernets being grown in hundreds of AVA’s scattered over dozens of states and provinces, and the percentage of seriously flawed wines has dropped considerably – almost everything is pretty good. Absent defining criteria, judges are left to choose among a wide variety of well-made wines with vastly different personalities, and of course they waffle, as any open-minded expert should.

In dog competitions, thousands of entrants are judged according to exacting breed standards, and ribbons awarded based on exacting criteria put forth by the breed clubs and documented by the American Kennel Club. An Irish Setter and a Cocker Spaniel, although they are both considered Sporting Dogs, are judged by completely different rules. It would be silly to hold them to the same criteria, and sillier still to have no standards at all!

[Q] Interesting concept, I admit…

[CS]  The French have known for centuries that varietals vary from region to region and must be marketed as such. We would never consider jumbling together a Graves, a Chinon, and a St. Emillion into a grab bag Cabernet Franc category for judging because consumers regard them differently. Why then should we judge Merlots from Spring Mountain, Long Island, and the Snake River blindly side by side?

[Q]  I completely believe in what you’re saying. It just makes perfect sense to me; but, you know there are going to be many skeptics for this one.

[CS]  Frankly, until two years ago when I began to taste wines grouped by appellation, I really didn’t know. But now I am offering you my firm opinion that regional character is the most important discriminator of wine characteristics – more than winemaking discretion, more than vintage variation.

[Q] Tell us about your experience with Petite Sirah. I sat in on that tasting and found it really fascinating to watch. This is a link to that blog posting called, Another Wine Competition… Do We Need Another One? Yes, we do, when it’s from Appellation America.

[CS]  Nowhere (much to my surprise) was this more pronounced than in Petite Sirah. I’ve already created two articles on this subject. The variation is such that, for example, a Howell Mountain PS, with its remorseless tannin, could never get a fair shake unless it is known to be from that region, famous for its aggressive tannins. Similarly, the high acidity of a Columbia Valley entry seems unbalanced side by side with wines from Lodi and Suisun, but can be quite charming in context.

Since Petite Sirah is a wine made more out of love than for profit, and the quality across the board is high. There are today nearly a thousand Petite Sirahs grown in a wide variety of climates, soil types, thermal regions, altitudes and latitudes, resulting in a broad spectrum of styles. This category is thus a great place to start our long journey towards rationalizing judging.

[Q] Can you give us a explanations about regional standards?

Sure. I have three considerations:

1. As in Europe, regional organizations are the final arbiters of regional profiles. I’m happy to assist these organizations in developing statements of standards.

2. If good wines are being made in different styles (oaked and unoaked, ML + or -, etc.) multiple profiles should be recorded. Especially while we are in an establishment phase, judges will need to be open to new style profiles when wines of innate charm are presented which do not conform to articulated styles. For Finger Lakes Rieslings, we recorded no less than six style profiles.

3. This is a big job. Judging reform is not going to happen overnight. Eye on the prize: that the American wine consumers of the future can be as comfortable in their expectation of a Virginia Cabernet Franc as they are with a Barbaresco or a Beaujolais. Perhaps more important, the development of regional identities will greatly aid computerized modeling to guide consumers to their personal preference algorithms such as we currently enjoy with Netflix or Pandora.com. Every American winery stands to benefit from this movement, and you can bet the Europeans are hoping we don’t dedicate ourselves to the long view which they have already accomplished.

[Q]  Well, this is definitely a new direction. It might bring up a debate, for which I’ve already defended the concept a couple of weeks ago in my blog posting called: Further Defining Petite Sirah’s AVA Characteristics.  It will be fun to see where this one goes. Stick around, Clark, you may have to defend yourself this time in the debate process.

[CS]  Well, people can feel free to contact me, too, with any questions or comments they may have. I’m excited about this new direction, and hope that wineries will join with me by developing regional standards, entering wines in the competition, and staying tuned for results. Finally we are beginning down a path where every wine gets a fair shake and consumers can be told what a medal means.

You can Email Clark Smith, or just leave your comments on this posting. I’m really curious to see what you guys are thinking about this one. It’s definitely a new approach that seems pretty logical to me.

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24 Responses to “Clark Smith’s Views on the Importance of Further Defining Terroir”

  1. ken payton says:

    Very interesting article. My recent experience with Petite Sirah certainly confirms the wild variability of its terroir expressions. I think this grape, for reasons not yet altogether clear, offers a quite wide latitude. Part of the resolution may involve winemaking techniques, heat-days, soil profiles and drainage, all the usual suspects, of course, but, curiously, I have yet to read any reliable papers on clonal variation. Neither has there been much research, as far as I know, on the global stability of grape’s genome.

    It would also be interesting to know the backstory of the rootstock sources currently used by Cali growers.

  2. Loweeel says:

    I just wish I could help judge!

    If Clark and/or Dan are interested in further exploration, I’m happy to provide next time they’re in NYC. I have a Thurston Wolfe from WA, 3 different PS from Israel (most Judean Hills), Infinite Monkey Theorem from CO, L.A. Cetto from Baja, and a few from Santa Barbara-environs.

  3. Jo says:

    Ken,

    I’ve got all the info on clones used by UC Davis, which gives us rootstock sources. I’ll find time to write about that one. That one is very, very interesting…as you can only imagine that I’d get my hands on that information. ;^)

  4. Jo says:

    Loweeel, Well, don’t you have the eclectic collection! Rivals my CA one.

    Reminds me to pull those glasses out for you. Done right now!

  5. Loweeel says:

    Jo, just look on cellartracker to see my collection. I promise, next time you come to NYC or thereabouts, you can have your pick of the PetS.

  6. Jo says:

    Loweeel,

    I’m bring another set of PS Masters glasses… or is your apartment running out of cupboard space?

  7. ken payton says:

    Jo, I would love to read the Davis material! I very much look forward to your post, you can be sure.

  8. Jo says:

    Ken,

    It’s also a lot of personal experience meeting with the Foundation Plant Management services department, and lots of communications with Dr. James Wolpert. I have all of their clones to date, and there are less than a dozen. It’s fascinating stuff, for PS lovers… Probable a big yawn for the rest of the world.

    It will take a lot of thought, because it’s very detailed, but I’ll get to it.

  9. Loweeel says:

    Jo, I’ll always have room for those 🙂

  10. Chris says:

    Interesting approach. But for people already inclined to be suspect of wine competition won’t this just give them more fodder? What I mean is there is already the perception that these contests give medals to everyone, with regional/AVA division there will be even more categories, more “best of”, more golds, etc…

    I actually like the idea of some published “standard” of what the criteria are for each varietal, and if need be region, but I also see the potential for further dilution of contests.

    For example, a standard for Washington State Pinot Noir or Zinfandel might be useful, but even I, a Washington homer no doubt, will admit those varieties don’t do as well in WA as they do in Oregon or California for Pinot, and our Zin’s pale compared to California. I’d rather know that a wine won best of variety based on the normal judging criteria, i.e. it’s best of its type against the best from around the world.

    Nice interview, Jo!

  11. Jo says:

    Thanks, Chris, for your comments and kudos.

    I’m going to share this with you guys, even though it was a private email between a friend and myself… I won’t be using a name, so I’m protecting the person from anyone knowing who this friend is. What this person had to say is really worth sharing, because we had a good laugh over this one. My friend has been in the business for twice as long as I have. (I’m now at 17+ years, so there’s the math.)

    Said: “Clark, to his credit, is finally discovering in CA what vintners in Europe have known for hundreds of years: there is such a thing as different vineyards, soil types and climates, and they don’t buy grapes from a distant grower and sell it as an “estate bottling.”

    So let’s think about what you’ve just written, too, and maybe bring it all back home…

    You wrote, “For example, a standard for Washington State Pinot Noir or Zinfandel might be useful, but even I, a Washington homer no doubt, will admit those varieties don’t do as well in WA as they do in Oregon or California for Pinot, and our Zin’s pale compared to California. I’d rather know that a wine won best of variety based on the normal judging criteria, i.e. it’s best of its type against the best from around the world.”

    What you’re saying here, if I’m reading this correctly, is that a WA Zin can’t compete with a CA Zin? If that’s true, then no one in WA state should ever submit a Zin, for fear of it not being “best of variety.” I honestly don’t know if that’s true about WA Zins, though… What if Paul Draper or Kent Rosenblum decided to move to WA, and segue their Zins to that climate? I honestly think if someone who’s worked with Zins for a very long time (like either of these winemakers) could come up with a winner in WA, that would make people sit up and take notice. (I may be wrong, but I still can’t help but wonder.)

    With a Zin placed in WA’s high dessert soils, the heat might bring out the best in the variety, just like it does with your Cabs in WA.

    So, the question still remains… Why submit a wine that the vintners feels is not going to be best of variety, regardless of location?

    What if it was submitted and became best of that AVA, though?

    It opens up many more opportunities for third party endorsements.

    The American wine industry is still figuring out where what plants go best in each region; whereas, Europe knows that Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Petite Verdot, Malbec, and Merlot grow best in the Bordeaux region, Pinot Noir grows best in Burgundy, Syrah grows best in the Rhone, etc. A best Pinot in the Russian River and the best Pinot in Carneros says something about each. California has so many areas of terroir, it makes one’s head spin… So will the best PS in Lodi, the best in Russian River, the best in the Sierras, etc. will also say something about that region, with a benchmark having been set by wine professionals.

    Skeptical about wine competitions?

    We’ve all just got to get over that and move on. They exist for a reason, and I believe in that reason as a marketer… And, it’s not just in the wine business. It’s in every industry. Report cards tell us how we’re doing… Since Day 1 in kindergarten.

    Frankly, I’m all for third party endorsements. I tell my clients, for those who can afford to do so, throw as many wines against the wall in several places, because something will eventually stick somewhere.

    Why is it important for something to stick? Because there are still people who aren’t willing to buy an unknown bottle of wine unless it has a score or medal attached to it… Who and/or what medal doesn’t make a difference, really, it just has to have performed well somewhere.

    What’s even worse are the sales guys who can’t sell based on their own palate preferences, or buyers who only buy when the wine has some endorsement attached to it. They’re driving this buggy, whether or not we want to admit it, and we’re all the passengers. Shelf talker sales prove that.

    So few people can think for and trust themselves. (Many are called, few are chosen, is how the saying goes.) If sales people, wholesalers, and buyers all thought for themselves, competitions and wine writers would fade into the sunset… rapidly.

    Don’t get me started. I think I went off message a bit, but I’m betting that you get my point.

    Wineries need these competitions. Sure, there are tons of them… I still feel they’re very important, because the world lives on scores, and that’s not going to change any time soon. When there’s lots of thought behind them, competitions give me more to write about, give people more to think about, and gives buyers and sellers more ease in selling – or not. We all bury the bad scores with, “This publication was off.” We celebrate the good ones with, “This publication got it.”

    I think we’re all pretty funny at the end of the day. ;^)

  12. Chris says:

    I don’t think WA Zins can’t compete (even though maybe I implied that) with CA Zins, it’s just when they do I’d want them judged by the same criteria, rather than “Best Washington/Best Walla Walla/Best Yakima Zin”.

    And I fully agree scoring and contests have their place and drive sales, marketing, and stimulate discussion. Just today I’m writing about a wine I bought pretty much solely based on the score and rankings it has recieved. That’s a rarity for me since I taste just about everything I buy and trust my palate as to what I like, but I understand not everyone has the luxury of tasting room access.

    And yes, it is supremely fun to disagree with others scores/ratings and promote ones you agree with as BEST! 🙂

  13. Jo says:

    Chris,

    Gonna go check out your blog!

  14. tom merle says:

    Clark Smith and his posse that includes Arthur the WineSooth may be pursuing their own narrow interests, but they do nothing for the consumer. The buyers of wines are not like the breeders of show dogs with their objective standards; show dogs are not consumed with meals. The Ordinary Person wants taste for a reasonable price, location be damned–unless it adds an interesting back story or has personal association(s).

    The Lodi competition, at the other end of the spectrum, is far more worthy of promotion since it seeks to identify wines that have the widest appeal to real wine drinkers. [As you know Jo, I strongly believe that user critiques a la CellarTracker/Grape Stories/Snooth are the future]

    Hanni vs. Smith: what an interesting article this would make!

    TOM

  15. Jo says:

    Tom, Always interesting to read what you have to say/think. Best to you.

  16. Clark Smith says:

    My approach is all about the consumer. My premise is that varietal groupings don’t give the consumer enough information. Just as Chinon is different from St. Emillion, good WA Zin will likely have its own distinctive nature, and over time we will all become as comfortable with place as an anchor of style in the New World as we are in the Old World. A Chardonnay from Santa Cruz Mountains or the Niagara Bench ought not to be held to a Napa Valley style standard. Natural and market forces have already resulted in a good deal of regional uniformity, and it’s in the consumer’s best interest that we encourage that process.

    Tim Hanni and I chat quite a bit about our different approaches. We aren’t at odds; we’re just working different parts of the puzzle. He wants to see if consumer preferences can provide useful guidance to other consumers, the benefit being that if grouped into preference categories by sensitivity, we are asking the right people, and the problem being they have less experience and fewer linguistic distinctions than expert judges. I’m interested in seeing whether expert judging can be improved by giving them a target to shoot for. Both these approaches to judging reform ought to be tried.

  17. Jo says:

    Clark,

    Well put.

    Thanks for your clarity. Make sense to me… as it has from the beginning.

  18. Clark Smith says:

    Let me add a clarification for those who understandably feel the dog show reference seems a bit, well, far fetched.

    There are many obvious distinctions between dogs and wines. I compare them because the competitions have roughly the same number of entrants and require expert judges to evaluate very subtle and often subjective distinctions among highly similar entrants. In both cases, a high degree of professionalism, passion, dedication, professionalism and cash is involved in their preparation.

    In these circumstances, dog show competitions long ago realized the wisdom of providing standards for the judges. In these and many other arenas, it is unrealistic to expect fair and consistent determinations to be made solely through unarticulated, arbitrary personal preferences of which the udge may be only dimly aware.

  19. Tim Hanni says:

    Hanni vs. Smith – I think that Clark and I should compete for best of breed. On second thought, dog shows rely on ‘conformation’ as standards for comparison and I don’t thing that Clark or I conform to standards very well.

    Clark’s sums it up very nicely – we are working on different parts of the puzzle and from very different angles. We formed an ad hoc mutual admiration society (correct me if I overstate this Clark) when we first met at the Tenaya Lodge some years ago because what we do agree on is that we are passionate and have a lot of fun doing what we do! AND there is so much to be learned and discovered.

    We all have different points of views, sensory capacities and values. And the wine industry seems to argue incessantly about who is right or wrong; who’s system of metaphors is better, blah, blah blah.

    The one thing we spend little time on is understanding and better serving consumers. There is a lot of wine out there and I am trying to see what we might be missing inside of all of the passionate ‘collective delusions’, mistruths and and downright lies we keep forwarding in the wine community. Especially about consumers and why they consume what they consume. That is my area of interest. Clark has a fabulous take on things from his area of interest and I love the guy!

    The Consumer Wine Awards was a blast, we learned a ton and can’t wait to analyze our data, improve things and do it again. We have a press release coming out this week with some of our preliminary findings.

    FYI – I also have hip dysplasia from inbreeding to keep my bloodlines pure. Damn puppy farms!!

    Jo – I can’t agree with you more, “I think we’re all pretty funny at the end of the day. ;^)”

    Thought for the day: the lowest form of learning is knowing.

  20. Jo says:

    Tim,

    I’ve always believed that group evaluations, when organized by professionals, are an excellent way to evaluate wines. I also have great respect for individuals who enjoy evaluating wine.

    I believe there’s room on the playing field for it all, because we all have opinions.

    Those with an educated palate have their own personal preferences, as does the group collective opinion.

    Then we have the new social media, and now they’re in the configuration.

    With billions of people on planet earth, there are that many opinions, and I enjoy what everyone has to say, because we’re all in this together.

    Some rise to the top, and that’s great for them. If someone comes up with something innovative, then I’m going to cheer. I don’t have time to yammer about this one is good, but that one is bad, for which evaluations is right or wrong. Each one delivers new information, and I’m in the business of promoting innovation… That’s my real bottom line.

    I’m glad you agree that we’re all pretty funny at the end of the day… that’s why angels fly, because they take themselves lightly.

    My daughter Lyla and I love your thought for the day. She was here when I read it, and I read it aloud to her… We both had a good chuckle. Thanks, Tim, for commenting.

  21. mark bunter says:

    People
    I don’t have much time, so I’ll be brief.
    1) Anyone who has ever tried to “finish” a champion show dog ( I have) knows that despite the standard (and the breed standards are hotly argued) the real game involves the human foibles and subjectivity of judges, and politics. Yeah, just like wine competitions. Including Riverside. I guess I won’t have to judge that one ever again. Hiring a well regarded professional dog handler who is known to the judges and politically astute is a huge advantage. You have to “campaign” the dog relentlessly and at great expense. Sounds a lot like wine marketing, eh?
    2) As long as winemakers are permitted to add water concentrate acid tannin sugar oak chips polysaccharides mannoproteins microoxygenate and reverse osmotize (is that even a word?- the list is actually much longer) without disclosing that on the label, the whole terroir premise is ridiculous. It would be just like ambitious dog owners having their dogs undergo plastic or orthopedic surgery in order to win. Oh, did I just let a cat out of a bag at a dog show?!?
    The best thing about this insane industry is that it is so chaotic as to include the corporate processed wine-like beverage beloved of thrifty consumers, the glorified and legitimized organized crime of large distributors, sincere tecchies like Clark Smith, all you bloggers, placenta-munching biodymicists, whistle-blowers, self-absorbed wine critics, flamboyant, oh-so-erudite (read: pedantic egotistical) “characters”, red-necked farmers, illegal immigrants, tenth generation bucolic dynasties, hawaiian shirts, pony tails, strong women, and grouchy luddites like me. Have fun blogging. I got to get busy selling wine to people who thank god don’t read this stuff. I pour it. I answer their questions. If they like it they buy it. If I tell them it’s grape juice with nothing added except (usually) sulfites, they don’t even seem to care. They like the concept of “organic”, although they don’t understand it, and some are sincerely interested to know why they get headaches from some wines but not others, with no obvious explanation. To the one real question they have, about their headaches, I can only extemporize. Clark- I am glad to see you survived. Dan- no disrespect. Jo- don’t know you but if Clark likes you you must be at least … interesting. Much love. Cranky love, but love, nonetheless. Mark

  22. Jo Diaz says:

    Very funny, Mark. I don’t know you either, save what you’ve just written; but I know I like you, based on what you’ve written.

  23. mark bunter says:

    Jo
    Hmm.. so you are interesting, but clearly not the best judge of characters? I’ll warmly thank you for your felicity, and leave your social acumen out of it. I try to stay out of these intellectual poker games because I don’t have the best poker face, tend to get a little foamy around the corners of the mouth, plus the ante is pretty steep- many of you actually know a lot more about wine than I do. I try to stay within my limits of internally coherent winemaking philosophy. Narrow they are. I love Clark, and have benefited greatly from reading and listening to him. Sometimes he reaches too far for an analogy. Dog shows, fer cryin out loud! Do you know how to keep your pooch from doing doody in the show ring? You make sure he/she does it before the big event. It involves a moistened wooden matchstick, accurately administered. And keep your pockets always stocked with bits of liver, because as charming as you may be, you will get more respect WITH chopped liver. Try those tricks at the next wine competition you judge. Mark

  24. Jo Diaz says:

    Mark,

    Funny.

    I stand by Clark’s character… and he’s quite the character, admittedly. We’ve know each other a long time.

    So, your analogy is also very interesting… And it sounds very much like playing the game of life. Nothing is pure, and everything’s a learning curve, unless you’ve passed the test; but then, there’s the new level of playing that goes on.

    Analogies are great. I was trying to get a client to understand what a dpi (dots per inch) means, in terms of taking an image that’s 8.5 x 11″, and that we couldn’t couldn’t just take that size and make it into a poster. To do that the image would have to be stretched, and that would distort the quality. The analogy I used was this: Take your pair of Hanes shorts and look at the elastic band. You can read what’s on the elastic. Now, stretch those shorts. You can now see all the elastic grains, but you can no longer read the text on the shorts. (He told me that I was so funny, but he got the drift.)

    Everything is a stretch, but if we don’t try proving our experiments, we’ve learned nothing more.

    That’s why I love Clark… He’s always got more to teach us, as you’ve noted. ;^)

    Love your comment!

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