Wednesday, January 21, 2009

A Year in Wine Numbers

I owe my parents a lot. And I don't just mean four years of college and 18 years of room and board (plus an extra 9 months' rent, according to my mom). From my dad I inherited an engineering bent, entrepreneurial spirit, and a high sensitivity to acetaldehyde and methoxy-pyrazines. From my mom I inherited musical sense and a love of numbers, metrics, data, whatever you want to call it - I'm a statistics junkie.

When it comes to wine statistics, CellarTracker is a gold mine. There's a huge amount of data (69,000 users as of 2008), and behind CT's butt-ugly interface hides an excellent tasting note organization system which I have personally taken advantage of ... 430 times to date. After about 15 months of wine tasting, I decided to satisfy my statistical curiosity.

Before I get into the numbers, I should acknowledge that CT scores suffer from several sources of noise, including but not limited to:

  • Palate variance: experience levels, genetic perception thresholds
  • Bottle variance: change over time, bottle flaws (not always recognized by tasters), other bottle variation
  • Conditions: temperature, glassware, accompanying food, ambient aromas
  • Scoring systems: A 90 point score means different things to different people
My personal scoring system can be described as follows:
  1. Wines are scored without regard to price. In other words, if I perceive a $4 wine to be of equal quality as a $100 wine, I will give them identical scores.
  2. I do not score wines that are flawed, or that I believe have low levels of acetaldehyde (from oxidation).
  3. I score wines on a 50-100 point scale based on intellectual and emotional reactions:
    • 50-60 points: "I cannot drink this without gagging. I want to kill the winemaker."
    • 60-70 points: "You'd have to pay me to drink it, but I probably wouldn't vomit."
    • 70-80 points: "Not horrible, but has several pretty glaring flaws."
    • 80-85 points: "I'd drink it, but it's not exciting."
    • 85-90 points: "Pretty good, interesting."
    • 90-95 points: "Holy crap, that is really friggen good and fascinating to drink!"
    • 95-100 points: "The ground is shaking, the clouds are singing!"
Here's a graph of my score distribution compared to CT's. I'm happy to note that my scores follow an approximate Gaussian distribution that is more centered than the CT distribution. The sparseness of the bars in the low end is probably an artifact of how I score - there's just less resolution between terrible and not-so-terrible wines than there is between excellent, complex wines. Plus who wants to agonize over 63 points vs. 64 points? I tend to just round to the nearest 5 or 10. NOTE: The bars at 49 points represent non-scored wines, including flawed bottles.

Next I looked at the geographical spread of my tasting notes. Because of wine's intimate connection with terroir and culture, I love to imagine that each bottle takes me on a brief trip to its birthplace. Walking through a wine store is like browsing a global travel catalogue. When it comes to countries, France and the US dominate. The only reason Italy follows is because I tasted over 60 Italian wines in just a few hours at a trade tasting last September.

Looking closer at the region level, it appears that California dominates. However this is largely a side effect of my job last summer working in various vineyards. Most of my tasting has centered around various French regions, resulting in a rather crowded "Other" category.

Finally I decided to look at the different varietals I've tried. California was the first region to exalt the varietal, labeling even blended wines by grape (15% other varietals are allowed). When it comes to blends, varietal character is difficult to discern, though not impossible. There are thousands of varietals out there, though only a handful produce great wines. There's even a 100 Varietal Club, for people who have tasted 100 different varietals and want a silly plaque on their wall. As of my last count, I've tasted 93 varietals, just short of the 100. Given some of the terrible non-vinifera strains and obscure French cultivars I've tried, I'm not too keen on tasting more obscure varietals, even for a pretty plaque.

Finally I looked up my top 5 wines so far. They represent three different countries and all come from different appellations. Each one was a surprise and a revelation - a profound learning experience:

1. Sean Thackrey "Pleiades" XV old vines (Bolinas, CA) - A wonderfully complex, delicious blend from a visionary winemaker (95 points)

2. '96 Taluau Vieilles Vignes (St.-Nicholas de Bourgueil) - A stunning wine from left field - aged cabernet france, in all its stewed bell pepper and cassis glory (95 points)

3. '00 Guigal Cote-Rotie "La Mouline" - Aged over 30 months in new oak, yet its delicate body doesn't show it. Tiramisu, blackberry, and bacon (94 points)

4. '05 Melis (Priorat, Spain) - Pure fruit wrapped in astounding layers of oak treatment, producing caramel, roasted nuts, and coffee (93 points)

5. '98 Chateau Kirwan (Margaux) - My first aged Bordeaux - not something I'll likely forget anytime soon (93 points)


Vandy-Montana said...

As a biomedical engineer...I loved this post.

Keep it up.


Rajiv said...

Thanks for reading, Craig!