Monday, September 24, 2018

Musings on grenache

I have always thought that one of the most intriguing grapes is the one usually known as Grenache. This is because you can make such a wide variety of styles and make them all well — everything from strong and tannic (eg. in Priorat), through herbal and spicy (eg. southern Rhône), to soft and fruity (eg. Barossa), and on to rosé (eg. Tavel and Provence), as well as dessert wines (eg. Banyuls). To me, very few of the usual rosé grapes can make a fine red wine, and few of the red-wine grapes can make a good rosé — it is "horses for courses", except for Grenache.

This musing was inspired by reading two wine articles in the same week, one extolling the virtues of Grenache in California (How California’s Central Coast winemakers are making grenache their own) and one extolling the virtues of Grenache in South Australia (Great groovy grenaches). These articles embody two different approaches to the topic of making wine from Grenache, but they both focus on making mono-varietal wines. of which we are seeing more and more these days.

Traditionally, in southern France Grenache is combined with Shiraz / Syrah, and sometimes also Mourvèdre / Mataro, or even Carignan, while in Rioja it is blended with Tempranillo. All of these blends are excellent uses of Grenache, but it can easily stand on its own if handled correctly. Mind you, Grenache can also make some pretty uninspiring wines, if you don't pay attention to what you are doing, especially regarding over-cropping.

To quote the Australian article: "Lighter-bodied, lower-tannin, soft, fruity, early-drinking red wine is in vogue everywhere, and is being promoted by a younger generation of winemakers who need to sell their wines young. In places ... where they can’t do much of consequence with Pinot Noir, astutely produced Grenache can perform a similar role."

To quote the US article: "Vintners ... are shedding that [jug wine] baggage. They’ve optimized viticulture and dialed back the tonnage to produce varietal Grenache as nuanced and delicious as top-shelf Pinot Noir — often at half the price. Winemakers explore both the rich, ripe side of the grape, which retains acidity deep into the harvest season, as well as lighter, fresher expressions that play up floral aromatics and taut textures."

Formally, the grape's name is Grenache Noir, to distinguish it from the white-wine Grenaches (Grenache Blanc and Grenache Gris). However, since the variety most likely originated in the region of Aragon in northern Spain, we should probably use its Spanish name: Garnacha Tinta. It has even been suggested that the Aragonese (who use the Catalan name: Garnatxa Negra) originally got the grape from Sardinia, where it is called Cannonau. However, it was apparently first recorded in Spain in 1479, in Sardinia in 1549, and in France in 1780.

The grape ripens late, and so it is widely grown in areas that are too warm for, say, Pinot Noir, with which it is so often compared. The above map is taken from: Distribution of the world's grapevine varieties (produced by the International Organisation of Vine and Wine, 2017).

Winemakers worldwide often comment on the "malleability" of Grenache, as well as on its ability to express terroir. It is less distinctive as a grape than are many other varieties and so, as noted above, it can make a wide variety of styles. It is thus somewhat surprising that Pl@ntGrape lists only 23 approved clones in France, compared to 20 for Cabernet Sauvignon but 47 for Pinot Noir.

There are a number of examples where Grenache has been used to make interesting vinous comparisons. For example, in Australia The Artisans of Barossa Grenache Project involved six winemakers each taking a row of Grenache from the same Barossa Valley vineyard in 2017, and then applying their own vinification and maturation approaches, thus producing six different wines. These wines were released as a 6-pack, thus allowing wine lovers to make the direct comparison of wine-making versus terroir. In that regard, Max Allen noted: "10 months after vintage, the winemaking influence is far more obvious than the vineyard-derived characters that all six wines should, theoretically, share."

With a somewhat different objective, in Spain Celler de Capçanes produces a 4-pack of wines called La Nit de les Garnatxes (this is Catalan; in English, it would be: The Night of the Grenaches). These are Grenache wines produced from grapes grown on each of the four different soil types in their Priorat vineyards: limestone, clay, slate / schist, and sand / alluvial. In this case, the same wine-making technique is applied, so that wine lovers can make a direct comparison of the four terroirs.

Finally, it is worth noting that there was a Global Garnacha Summit earlier this year, held in Napa but hosted by the producers from the Spanish wine region of Cariñena. The main topic of discussion was the resurgence of Grenache wines, and there are several summary reports to peruse (eg. here and here). Furthermore, there is actually an International Grenache Day, which is the 3rd Friday in September — this year that was last Friday. To celebrate, the organizers suggest: "Just open a bottle of Grenache wine, or blend, and share it with friends, family, business contacts." My wife and I had a bottle of this:

Fire Block Old Vine Grenache 2012

Monday, September 17, 2018

The number of wineries in the USA

We all know that the number of wineries in the USA keeps increasing, but few people know just how many there are, or how rapidly the number is increasing. Well, this is precisely the sort of thing that the government likes to keep a track of, and they do not hide the information from us.

The data in the following graph come partly from the U.S. Tax and Trade Bureau (Bonded wine producers count by state: 1999–2018) and partly from the Wine Institute (Bonded wineries — data prior to 1999). To make this clear: "Bonded winery premises include every licensed production facility of single firms or individuals, licensed warehouses, experimental wineries and wineries with no casegoods production or fermentation capacity." That is, pretty much everything.

Number of US wineries through time

So, that makes 12,573 facilities as of June 30 2018. This is one winery for every 30,000 persons in the country.

There was a decline in number from World War II until 1965, presumably also still reflecting both Prohibition and the Great Depression. However, from 1970 there has been an exponential increase in the number of wine facilities, as shown in the next graph.

Fit to the exponential model of the number of US wineries through time

The exponential model fits very well, which means that the rate of increase is itself increasing each year. Indeed, the number of wineries is multiplied every year by c.1.07 (on average, each year there is an increase of 7% over the previous year). It is not obvious how long this rate of growth can be maintained, since there is a finite amount of land area on which to construct these facilities. However, it has been going on for a half-century now, with no sign of abating.

Obviously, not every year has exactly the same increase, as shown in the next graph, which simply shows the annual change in number.

Annual change in the number of US wineries

First, note the apparent boom between 1975 and 1980. This is an artifact — it is the accumulated number of new facilities over 5 years (341), not just 1 year (presumably, c.70 per year). Second, the apparent boom in 2011 also looks like a possible artifact — the preceding decline, plus the boom, looks like there were a whole lot of new facilities that were not recorded during 2008-2010, which were then included in the 2011 census. However, this same pattern is repeated across all of the states, as shown (in green) for California in the next graph. So, whatever it was that caused this was widespread.

Annual change in the number of California wineries

Speaking of California, it is appropriate to finish with a consideration of how the biggest wine-producing state fits into the national pattern. This is illustrated in the final graph, which shows the number of California facilities as a percentage of the national total.

Percentage of US wineries that are in California

Note that the increasing dominance of the California industry until 1965 (reaching 57%) coincides with the general decline in the national number of wineries. This maximum percentage was maintained until 1984, after which there was a rapid rise in winery numbers elsewhere — that is, until 1986, the number of new facilities outside California grew more rapidly than the number inside. Things steadied after that, with the increase in numbers both inside and outside California keeping pace with each other until the end of the century.

However, the last time California had more than 50% of the US wineries was in 2001; and its dominance has steadily decreased since then. Nowadays, people are simply setting up more facilities outside California than inside it — after all, there is a lot more potential vineyard land outside. Presumably, this trend will continue for the foreseeable future.

Monday, September 10, 2018

Keeping the family wine business is often hard

Fred Swan has recently noted that: “The vineyard and winery business in Napa Valley has, over the past 50-some years, largely shifted from small, family-owned wineries, to multi-brand corporate ownership, and then to proprietorships of uber-wealthy people who needn’t worry about shareholder dividends.” Some other parts of the world have followed the same path, notably Bordeaux and Burgundy, although most places stop at corporate ownership.

Nevertheless, throughout much of the world, vineyards and their associated wineries are often family-run concerns, either small or large (for the very large, see The curious dominance of family-owned wine businesses in the U.S.).

Indeed, it is often treated as commercially desirable that a wine business should be seen as family run, even after it has been bought by a large corporation. In this regard, Australia's Robert Hill Smith (who heads a family-owned wine business) has said: “I’m really sick of the latest trend for corporate misuse of the term ‘family’ when promoting wine brands that were sold by the family founders eons ago, and conning wine-loving consumers and trade alike.” Indeed, in Australia, you can consult a list of companies who do precisely this: Who makes my wine?

As far as families are concerned, Rebecca Gibb has noted that: “four in five family wineries in the US [are] still in the hand of first-generation owners.” One reason for this is that keeping the business in family hands is one of the hardest things to do, whether it is the wine business or not: “According to the Family Business Institute, 75 percent of businesses don’t transition to the second generation, and only one percent survive past the third.” For wineries, Fred Swan points out that: “For many long-term, family winery owners, the only way to fund retirement for themselves and their employees, divide assets among children, or fund improvement or expansion is to sell.” Indeed, Richard Mendelson is quoted as noting: “Winery sellers can be owners who need capital to expand but lack it, or lack the front or back office staff needed to expand. Sometimes, they are families whose 'next gen' are uninterested in staying on or can’t agree on how to run the business.” See also Brian Freedman's article on the topic.

This raises the interesting question of just how many vineyards / wineries have made it through several generations, and still remain in family hands today. For example, Italy’s Marchesi Antinori wine company is still family owned after 26 generations (as noted on their logo, shown above). This is in sharp contrast to, say, the Mondavi family's well-reported succession problems, which even became the subject of a book (The House of Mondavi: the Rise and Fall of an American Wine Dynasty. Julia Flynn Siler, 2007).

Some data

I would not even dream of tackling this question with reference to anywhere in Europe or North America, because the data-collecting would defeat me. So, I will adopt my tried-and-true approach of using Australia as my example — Australia has 25 million people to search among, not 350 million!

So, here is a list of current Australian wine companies that were founded all the way back in the 1800s, and which have maintained the same basic name, even if their associated vineyards have not been continuously maintained.1 It is based on: Australia’s oldest wine companies or continuously operating brands.

Wyndham Estate
Olive Farm Wines
Yering Station Vineyard
Sandalford Wines
Oliver’s Taranga Vineyards
Penfold’s Magill Estate Winery
Pewsey Vale Vineyard
Orlando Wines
Bleasdale Wines
Seppeltsfield Winery
Sevenhill Cellars
Drayton’s Family Wines
Normans Wines
Mudgee Wines
Chambers Rosewood Winery
Gehrig Estate Wines
St Leonards Vineyard
Tyrrell’s Vineyards
Morris Wines
Saltram Wine Estates
Jones Winery & Vineyard
Mount Prior Vineyard
Tahbilk Wines
Hardys Tintara Winery
St Huberts
Goona Warra Vineyard
All Saints Estate
Turkey Flat Vineyards
Best's Great Western
Campbells Winery
Stanton [& Killeen] Wines
McWilliam's Hanwood Estate
Brown Brothers Milawa Vineyard
Angove Family Winemakers
Kay Brothers Amery Vineyard
Pirramimma Wines
Year established
1849  AFFW
1858  AFFW
1860  AFFW
1868  AFFW
1870  AFFW
1877  AFFW
1885  AFFW

The table lists all still-extant companies that were founded up to 1864. There were plenty of other companies founded during that time, but they no longer exist under their original name. For example, these companies have also operated continuously since their founding: Hope Estate (founded 1850) became Seaview (in 1950), before being absorbed into Treasury Wine Estates; Craigmoor (1859) is now Robert Oatley Vineyards; and Quelltaler Estate (1863) is now the corporate-owned Annie's Lane.

In the table, I have highlighted in boldface those companies that are are still in the original family's hands today (8 out of 32). To them, I have added the other continuously family-owned companies that I know of that were founded before 1900 (another 10). Note that some of the other companies listed in the table are currently in family hands, just not the hands of the founding family.2

That's not a bad list, really, since it adds up to 18 Australian wine companies with continuous family ownership for more than a century.


There have been a number of organizations gathering together families who have made it through several generations of winery ownership. For example, in Europe there is Primum Familiae Vini (founded 1993; currently 11 member companies); in New Zealand there is the Family of Twelve (founded 2009); and Australia has Australia's First Families of Wine (founded 2009; currently 12 members).

Obviously, it is the latter group (abbreviated AFFW) that is of relevance to the discussion here; and seven of the 12 member companies are highlighted in the table above. The group name is a bit cheeky, as it cannot refer to the "first families in time", given the number of other long-term ownerships listed above. The five AFFW companies missing from the table were sometimes founded much more recently:

De Bortoli Family Winemakers
Jim Barry Wines
Taylors' Wines
Howard Park (Burch Family Wines)
Year established
1912  AFFW
1928  AFFW
1959  AFFW
1969  AFFW
1986  AFFW

Nor can the group's name actually refer to "first in quality", in spite of the fact that their stated primary aim is to promote high-quality Australian wines:
The underlying rationale for the formation of Australia's First Families of Wine was the realization that export markets had either lost sight of or had no way of knowing about Australia's rich history, it's diverse regions and wine styles, and the fierce personal commitment of the best winemakers to the production of high-quality wines true to their variety and geographical origin.
The criteria for membership are relatively straightforward, including: being family controlled (in a legal sense); having a history of at least two (preferably three) generations involved in the business; the ability to offer a tasting of at least 20 vintages of one or more iconic brands; ownership of established vineyards more than 50 years old and/or distinguished sites that exemplify the best of terroir; a commitment to environmental best practice in vineyards, wineries and packaging; and long-term commitment to export markets.

However, there are other family-owned wineries who meet these criteria, and yet who are not members. Grant Burge Wines (founded 1988) is an obvious example, with its Meshach Shiraz (first vintage 1988), with grapes sourced from the Filsell Vineyard (established in the 1920s). However, many, if not most, of Australia's iconic wineries do not have vineyards that are 50 years old (yet).

However, the sticking point for membership seems to be the criterion that I did not list above: family member service on wine industry bodies. This is an impossible ask for most family-run businesses, because most of them are relatively small — the time commitment is often simply not there, even if there is a family member willing (or able) to take on the task. Most family-owned Australian wineries are thereby excluded from the AFFW, because they are not large enough.

Finally, it is ironic that their bid for international recognition of the quality of Australian wines pits the AFFW squarely against Australia's largest family-owned wine company: Casella Wines (founded 1969). It is the great success of Casella's Yellow Tail (the best-selling imported wine brand in the USA) that has given Australian wines their 21st century reputation as easy-drinking and innocuous. So, it is a group of 12 families against a single family (plus all of the large corporations).

Mind you, all of this it still leaves us with a moot question: Should you join the family business?

1 Some of the names have changed a bit over the years. For example, just the other day Brown Brothers changed its name to Brown Family Wine Group.
2 I should note that the founding date for Best's is stretching the definition a bit. The company was in the Best family's hands until 1920, when it was bought by a neighboring family, the Thomsons, who had founded their own winery in 1893 — they have owned Best's ever since. Tulloch (founded 1895) is another tricky case, the company having been re-purchased by the Tulloch family in 2001.

Monday, September 3, 2018

The poor mathematics of wine-quality scores

Language is all about communication. If you say something and I don't understand it, then we are both wasting our time.1 For example, a Swede and I were looking at a book the other day, in which one of the female characters referred to another one as "duck". My colleague interpreted this as insulting, because it would be so if you did the same thing  in Swedish (using the word "anka"). However, it seemed to me that "duck" and "ducky" were precisely the sorts of expressions that buxom barmaids used to use in those 1960s British television shows that I saw as a child, in which it was a friendly term. It turned out that the book was set in London, and published in 1958, so that was the correct interpretation.

Celia Fremlin — The Hours Before Dawn

This sort of variation in interpretation is one reason why word descriptions of wines are frequently disparaged, because it is often rather difficult to work out what all of this flowery language is supposed to mean (see my post on Wine writing, and wine books). In turn, this dissatisfaction is one reason why wine-quality scores are popular, because mathematics is supposed to make communication pedantically precise.

For example, in the early 1900s Jacques Futrelle created the character Professor van Dusen (also known as The Thinking Machine), who solved mysteries by the remorseless application of logic. His mantras was: "Two and two equal four, not just some of the time but all of the time".2 This emphasizes the ultimate goal of mathematics as a language, that we cannot go wrong — a mathematical proof of a proposition is as close as we can get to certainty.

However, to use of this advantage we must be rigorous, and be pedantic about our intention, as well. This is often problematic, because most people manage to forget all of the mathematics they were taught at school, within minutes of leaving that school for the last time.3 For example, you should all recognize that van Dusen is actually wrong, because the assumption that the sum uses base10 is not warranted, and in base2: 1 + 1 = 10.4

So, wine-quality scores will only be at their best as a means of communication if they follow the logic of mathematics. Sadly, they rarely do.

Augustus S.F.X. van Dusen

Best-case scenario

The first widely applied wine-scoring system was the 20-point scale developed in the 1950s by Maynard Amerine and his colleagues at the University of California, Davis. In this scheme, each organoleptic characteristic of the wine is assigned a number of points based on its perceived quality, and these points are summed to produce the final score. The wine characteristics include: appearance, color, aroma and bouquet, total acidity, sweetness, body, flavor, bitterness, and astringency,

In theory, everyone who uses the UCDavis scale should be "speaking the same language"; and therefore any differences in wine scores should represent differences in perceived wine quality, not differences in the use of language. However, in practice, this will be true only if summing the sub-scores makes mathematical sense — if this is not so, then the sum is not a repeatable mathematical quantity.

For the sum to make any mathematical sense, each possible quality point has to mean exactly the same thing as every other possible quality point. That is, a point for color has to mean exactly the same thing as a point for astringency; if not, then adding the points has no precise mathematical meaning. Furthermore, every user has to mean exactly the same thing when they assign each quality point. It is like counting apples — we all need to agree on what an apple is, and then we need to be able to recognize each apple when we see one; if I try to add 3 apples and 3 blackberries, the sum of 6 may not make much sense.

Is this required uniformity of the points likely to be true in the case of wine-quality assessment? I doubt it, although I would love to have someone demonstrate that I am wrong. This means that, even in this situation, where the input to the quality score is pre-specified as the sum of a set of parts, the mathematics is not helping us communicate as much as we would like. And this is the best-case scenario!

Maynard Amerine (left) and Edward Roessler (right)

Usual scenario

On the other hand, most wine commentators do not use any such scoring scheme. Their wine-quality scores are personal to themselves. That is, the best we can expect from each commentator is that their wine scores can be compared among themselves, so that we can work out which wines they liked and which ones they didn't. However, the scores cannot be compared between commentators at all.

I have shown this unfortunate situation in two main blog posts, where I directly compared the scoring systems of several professional commentators for the same wines:
No-one's scores were the same as anyone else's, irrespective of what set of points they used. So, differences between scores could mean differences in wine quality, but they could just as easily reflect differences in the interpretation of the numbers. In this case, the numbers are no better than are words as a means of communication. It is like watching someone from Scotland trying to talk with someone from Texas — they may ostensibly be using the same language (English), but they may also find that their communication is an uphill battle.

Jancis Robinson, when she was a bit closer to her maths days


Obviously, we shouldn't conclude from this that points are pointless. But we might conclude that the sometimes-heard argument that numbers are more precise than words does not really apply in the case of wine-quality assessments. Even in the best-case scenario, where sets of points are added together to produce the score, might make little mathematical sense.

I believe that this is the main reason why the best-known mathematically trained wine commentator has repeatedly said that she is wary of assigning quality points to the wines that she tastes. This is Jancis Robinson, who has a degree in mathematics (and philosophy) from the University of Oxford. As far as I know, she has never put it this way, but she could do so with perfect assurance: wine assessment is no better using numbers than words, because the numbers violate many of the mathematical requirements for a precise language.


Tom Wark has posted a very intersting response to my comments over at his Fermentation blog: A wine rating is an adjective, not a calculation. In one sense he does not disagree with my conclusion, but instead disputes the premise that numbers must be treated as calculations. My reply (as posted on his blog), is to question "why, given that the numbers are not mathematics, we are using mathematical language in our attempt to communicate. To me, this is like using English words without creating English sentences! So, if a wine rating is an adjective, then don’t use a number, because this is a very poor substitute for an adjective."

1 Unless I happen to like the sound of your voice! I have long thought that one reason the English have traditionally disliked the French and the Scots is that, for spoken English, both groups have accents that are much more melodious than any of the numerous English ones.

2 This idea goes back a long way. For example, in Johann Wigand's De Neutralibus et Mediis Libellus (1562) we find: "That twice two are four, a man may not lawfully make a doubt of it, because that manner of knowledge is grauen [graven] into mannes [man's] nature."

3 See Why do Americans stink at math?

4 We expect numbers to be in base10 because we have 10 fingers, but any base is actually possible, and to be pedantic we should always specify which one we are using. Computers, for example are binary, and thus use base2, while computer programming often uses octal, which is base8, or hexadecimal, which is base16. Given the number of devices in the modern world that have a computer processor in them, base2 is almost as common as base10 these days.