Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Winelover Winery Visits Task Force Report: The Site Visit

Previous posts in this series have described the Formulation of the Winery Visits Task Force and the Winelover Preparation for the Winery Visit. Todays post deals with the mechanics of the visit and the types of data to be collected therein.

The objective of any site visit should be to come away with as clear an understanding as possible as to: (i) the wines that are being produced at the establishment; (ii) the quality of the wines produced therein; and (iii) why the specific quality levels. In order to arrive at this level of understanding it is my opinion that data need to be collected in a systematic manner so that the various elements can be placed in proper sequence and weighed both against each other and the data collector’s experiences. I will expound on these thoughts in the following sections but first some preliminary material.

Day of the Visit
The following are considerations for the visiting Winelover:
  • It is possible that the visit will include both vineyard and winery tours in addition to tastings. The Winelover should dress accordingly, with special care taken to wear comfortable shoes.
  • The Winelover should refrain from consuming products beforehand that could compromise his/her ability to properly taste and evaluate the wine.
  • The Winelover should ensure that he/she is on time for the appointment.
  • The Winelover should courteously, but confidently, introduce him/herself to the person conducting the tour and should have a business card to present to said person. It is appropriate to ask for a reciprocal business card at that time.
  • Listen carefully to any instructions given and adhere to them during the course of the visit. You do not want to be the “smartass” in the group. A negative perception of an individual or the group by the tour leader could crimp the flow of relevant information.
  • If you are planning on using voice or video recorders please inform the tour guide and ensure that he/she is ok with that.
Data Collection
The blocks of data that need to be collected in order to gain a full appreciation for what the winemaker is doing at the estate are shown in the figure below. 

These blocks of data are best collected in the order listed. The Winelover does not have to ask every question in order to guide this flow but should be prepared to intervene to put the conversation back onto this path if it begins to stray. In addition, the winelover needs to get a perspective on the estate’s overarching philosophy and that data collection will be threaded throughout the entire effort. 

Some of this data may have been collected and curated prior to the visit (as described in Winelover Preparation for the Winery Visit) and should be validated during the interaction with winery staff.

This area examines the principles which guide the winemaker’s actions. There is no right answer here but the answer provides a sense of the school of winemaking that he/she pursues and why. It gives a sense of what the terroir provides and how the winemaker seeks to exploit that. This will generally be a free-form discussion and the Winelover should attempt to capture as much of this dialogue as he/she can.

Quality grapes are a precursor of quality wine and the science of viticulture has developed and evolved with a single goal in mind: the delivery of high-quality wine grapes to the winery.  The quality of wine grapes produced in a specific harvest is not only a function of that year's harvest conditions; rather, it is the result of a combination of factors which, together, represent the full scope of viticultural science.  The data elements that need to be collected in this space are shown in the figure below.

The figure below is a graphical depiction of the wine production process with some extensions that are specific to the Clark Smith Post-modernwinemaking schema. As stated in his book, postmodern winemaking does not seek to throw out all elements of modernity and replace them lock, stock, and barrel with a new canon. Rather, postmodern winemaking uses existing pieces where appropriate and substitutes as necessary. The key extensions of postmodern winemaking are shown in the box in the top-right labeled Postmodern Toolkit. If a Winelover encounters a winemaker who practices postmodern winemaking, these extensions should be explored.

The subject of granularity of data collection needs to be considered by the Winelover. The leftmost column in the figure below shows the highest level of data that will be captured. Data at this level can be collected during a dialogue with the winery team. As you move to the right in the table, the data becomes more granular and will require some effort on the part of the winery to come up with answers. If data of this granularity is required, they should be collected via pre- or post-visit questionnaires.

Wine Tasting
After the tour of the vineyard and production facilities, the practice is for the winemaker to take the group into the tasting room to sample some of the output (Some of this tasting may have occurred in the cellar as a tasting of barrel samples). I have developed a mechanism for assessing a wine which takes into account a number of intrinsic and extrinsic factors of quality. For our purposes, the intrinsic factors (what is in the glass) would be an appropriate data set. The model is shown below with the intrinsic factors in the right column.

A crib sheet of wine descriptors is provided below.

Lettie Teague, writing in the Wall Street Journal ( stipulates that “… all wine professionals spit out their wine religiously – and everyone who is tasting wine should … “ and we recommend that #Winelovers adhere to this principle when visiting our winery partners. Depending on the breadth of the winery portfolio, a not-insubstantial amount of alcohol may be provided to the Winelover at the tasting. Swallowing that much wine may result in inebriation which could lead to shoddy assessment of the wines presented or (horror of horrors) visible signs of intoxication.

At the conclusion of the visit, the winery team should be thanked for their hospitality and the member responsible for dealing with follow-up questions identified.

Next Steps
The next steps in the process are assessment of the collected data, filling in any gaps, and preparing the report. That process will be covered in Sharon Parsons upcoming post.

©Wine -- Mise en abyme

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