Arf! How winemaking resembles dog breeding

Border Collies during the breed judging at the 2007 Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show.

It’s a provocative question but not a facetious one.  The thought came to me while having lunch recently with an old friend who was instrumental in making two once-celebrated Boston area restos destinations for wine enthusiasts — the waterfront’s Anthony’s Pier 4 and Newton’s Pillar House — more than forty years ago.

The subject was some Chablis that my Formaggio Kitchen colleague James Hull and I tasted earlier in the day from Jean-Marc Brocard. Being the incorrigibly old school kind of guy he is, Bernie groused that not enough Chablis today tastes like Chablis.  When I explained that I thought this Chablis did indeed taste like Chablis he seemed pleased.  For him, the sine qua non of wine quality is that it taste like what it is.

This is a pretty pervasive idea, and not just for guys of Bernie’s generation. The entire appellation system (there are a few exceptions) exists to support the idea. This is why there are such detailed rules about how appellation wines can be made.  Mandating where grapes can be planted, what varieties may used in what percentages, when fruit must be picked, in what quantities, what the resulting wine’s minimum alcohols must be, and how and for what duration it must be aged before release is a recipe for uniformity.

That’s the idea, after all — to give appellation wine  — whether its Touraine or Rosso di Montalcino — a recognizable identity.  When the process succeeds, wines display a marked similarity in the way they smell, taste, and feel within certain agreed-upon limits of variability (tasting panels help insure this).  Wines that display an unusual intensity or brilliance of the replicated form are thought to be the most excellent examples of what they are.

It’s in this sense that we can make the comparison to the dog show. Among dog fanciers, breeding and judging are guided by the breed standards established by a governing authority — the American Kennel Club, for example.  The goal is to see the written standards incarnated as closely as possible in an individual animal.  It’s the aim of breeders to produce dogs that conform to this standard. Judges use conformity to the standard as the basis for acknowledging champions.  Consumers (the people who buy dogs for pets) are impressed by bloodlines that include dogs with show ribbons.

You can view the AKC breed standard for the Labrador Retriever here.  I leave it to you to ponder the similaritiies to the French cahier des charges for AOP Touraine or the Italian disciplinare for DOC Rosso di Montalcino.  It’s worth noting that it wasn’t that long ago that a favorite way for (British) wine writers to describe a wine of particular excellence was to say it had “breeding.”

It’s fair to say that typicity (the replication of form) in wine owes something to nature but it owes much more, I think, to the cultural consensus that develops over time concerning the shape the wine of a certain region should take.  To the degree that winemakers, consumers, and critics consent to these standards the consensus is reinforced and perpetuated.

And each of these groups benefits in some way from the agreement they enter into. For my old friend, having a notion of the Chablis form allows him to make quality judgments about wine that would otherwise be quite a bit more difficult.  For candidates studying for the Master of Wine or Master Sommelier title, familiarity with these consensus forms are an essential aspect of  their learning.  If the forms didn’t exist what would their special expertise consist of and what would the organizations who bestow these degrees have to sell?

Consensual forms, typicity, the structures of appellation law only work this way if they either remain stationary (or at least change very slowly) and everyone keeps replicating.  Once winemakers start moving the reference points by departing from the norms all bets are off and the expertise consumers, somms, and critics spent years accumulating begins to feel far less useful.

A glass of turbid fizzy amphora-fermented un-sulfured orange vin de table,  anyone?

Stephen Meuse can be reached at

Sweetening the pot Conjectures on the origins of sugary wine

In the passito process grapes are left to dry, concentrating their natural sugars. Credit: Marco Fon

I recently recorded a spot for America’s Test Kitchen Radio on sweet wines.  It didn’t feel that successful frankly, but as often happens the effort wasn’t without its compensations.  It came in the form of a new idea – and possibly some insight – about how sweet wines may have come about.

Nothing actually scientific or historical here, I’m afraid – most of what follows is strictly conjectural.

Evolutionary biologists tell us that our distant hominin ancestors came down from the trees already addicted to the sweet taste of ripe fruit. Grapes, having the highest load of sugars of any fruit were thus instantly attractive to us wherever we found them.

What a thrill when we first learned that those sugars would spontaneously ferment, giving birth – under the right conditions — to that marvelous, mood-altering substance: alcohol.  Hurrah!

Now imagine the disappointment which must have followed with shocking immediacy when we realized the cost. All that dreamy sweetness that attracted us to grapes in the first place was used up in generating  alcohol. Boo! Hiss!

Continue reading Sweetening the pot Conjectures on the origins of sugary wine

Confessions of a shelf talker How is a wine defined?

A chat with Julia Hallman, general manager at Formaggio Kitchen Cambridge this week about the shelf talkers that I had been busy rewriting.  The time between taking the old ones down and putting the new ones up gave me a chance to see what the response of our clientele would be to their temporary disappearance.  The result of our little experiment: shoppers really do rely on them.

So now the question becomes what these signlets should say. ThereIMG_2078‘s not a lot of space to work on business card size tags (example at left).  Julia noted that based on what she had been hearing constituent grape variety/varieties are the most sought-after data.  This started me down a road I’ve trudged before: just what is it consumers are thinking when they ask “What kind of wine is this?”

It’s a question that has its origin in what I have called elsewhere the fog of wine: that disturbing combine of mystery, doubt, and anxiety all of us feel at one time or another as we try to find our way through the thickets of place names, soil types, cultivars, and flavor profiles wine confronts us with.

Though it seems natural enough now, clearing the fog by focusing on grape varietals is a relatively recent phenomenon. The likely reason it took so long: the wine industry’s deep, historic aversion to transparency.  For centuries wine was distributed via brokers and negociants whose business it was to blend stocks of wine into saleable condition while completely obscuring the process by which they accomplished this.

Continue reading Confessions of a shelf talker How is a wine defined?



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Red wine, please. Hold the cream and sugar


I was pouring one white and three red Bordeaux at Central Bottle on  a Friday night a few years ago with the idea of playing a little catch-up on a neglected category. I’d noticed that the only attention the little Bordeaux corner got was from French speakers and a few people of – shall we say – mature years.  My boss Liz Vilardi pretty much summed up the problem in her teze for the event in the morning email newsletter: Bordeaux. Bor-d. Eaux. Bor-ing. Irritatingly expensive.

She went on to say that she thought the tide was turning, although my sense was and is that this is optimistic. The reaction of visitors to the tasting table that night, particularly the younger ones, bore this out:  namely, a sip followed by either no reaction or a frankly puzzled look. After a couple of hours of this, I decided I needed some simple way of explaining red Bordeaux, since it didn’t seem to be explaining itself. I tried the old trick of suggesting these were wines that would come into their own taken alongside the right food (no less true for being a cliché, by the way).

Then, while chatting with a 20-something Chinese couple who were clearly interested in the subject but not appreciative of what they were tasting I tried this gambit: “Bordeaux,” I said, “is a cup of black coffee.”

Continue reading Red wine, please. Hold the cream and sugar