Chris Gerling, Cornell Extension

Peter Fox, Fox Run Vineyards

Dave Breeden, Sheldrake Point Winery

Peer Based Wine Evaluation Group

This is a model that works for a group of wineries in New York. Their philosophy is that working together they can not only improve the wines that their individual wineries bring to the market, but also elevate their region in the winemaking world.

There is a ‘first call’ list of 15 people who have worked together for a while, and a waiting list if not enough of the core group is available. The participant are:

The group meets twice a month, except during harvest. They taste each other’s wines, wines in progress, wines from other regions in some way analogous to what they’re making, and also wines that are completely different, to widen their tasting horizons. Each year they set a wine budget to buy those outside wines and collect the fees. Currently participants pay $150 / year each - and that lets them afford a range of wines.

The tastings take place from 9:00 - 11:30 am. It’s only wine, not wine plus food. It’s a work event, not an entertainment event, hence the hours and the wine-only.

The group sits in a circle so that they can all face each other. They taste 2 or 3 flights of six wines each (more than that and you can’t really taste anything anymore). The tasting is blind. Participants taste a flight, record the scores on a whiteboard / poster so everyone can see, discuss the wines, and unmask them after discussion is done.

Each wine is scored from 0 (flawed) - 3 (3 is the highest, but it doesn’t mean the best wine in the world, you don’t hold a ‘3’ waiting for something extraordinary). Whole numbers only. The tasting is primarily for the quality of the wine, although not restrictively so, there’s a bit of hedonism involved and your own personal preferences. However, you need to be able to describe what in the wine influenced your enjoyment.

The scale is simple, but it tells participants what they need to know. It marks if a wine is flawed. It marks if there’s general agreement on a wine. It marks a ‘personality driven’ wine that some people adore and others might truly dislike (a wine with dividing lines like that is fine if that’s the intent). It provides a starting point for people to talk about their reactions to the wine. Note that wines in progress are not scored, only discussed.

There is a task-focused discussion moderator to make sure that:

It’s important for everyone to share their honest scores and opinions, and for new winemakers to be full participants. Everyone should take the feedback constructively, and what is said in the room stays in the room. One reason not to have owners present is so that no one panics if there’s a problem with a wine, they just work together to solve it. The shared tastings help people get beyond a winery-specific palate, and tasting wines from around the world helps get beyond a region-specific palate. Also, everyone has specific anosmias (and that’s compared to the general population not just other winemakers) and the group helps each other cover the gaps in what they can detect. In other words - everyone needs constructive feedback, it is physically impossible not to benefit from an outside taster.

Additional Resources:

Cornell offers a 2 day course in wine sensory analysis

ENOCERT 201 Certification Course: Wine Sensory Analysis and Description (2 days hands-on)

Overview: In this course, attendees will learn to follow their nose- and their tongue.  In a series of sensory exercises, attendees will learn to differentiate between taste and smell, discover their own sensory perception strengths and weaknesses, and learn to evaluate wine typicity.  Must be 21 years of age or older.

Learning Objectives:

1. To understand the difference between smell, taste, and ‘flavor.’

2. To learn individual thresholds for key wine aroma and taste components.

3. To learn the primary contributors to wine mouthfeel.

4. To understand how experts and novices describe wine, and how to bridge the gap.

5. To gain familiarity with common wine types.

Laboratories are another option, some (like the one at Cornell) offer a little more hands on help than others. Options:

 

This report was made possible by the Vermont Agency of Agriculture's Specialty Crop Block Grant Program. More information from the Vermont Wine Marketing Project is available online from the Vermont Fresh Network.