The Wine World and Competing Values

palmaz vineyardsI think this article in Vinepair entitled “Can Cutting-Edge Technology and Character Coexist in Winemaking? really gets to the heart of the debate about what wine is and how we should appreciate it. The article is in part a profile of Napa Valley’s Palmaz Vineyards:

Palmaz’s end goal and, the producer might argue, most significant achievement is not revolutionizing what wine is, but utilizing impossibly forward-thinking technology to craft a product that is almost imperceptibly different from other big, bold Napa wines.

The winery is a gargantuan gravity-flow facility overlooking several vineyards with distinct micro-climates planted with mostly Bordeaux varieties. In order to isolate all the variables each of the 24 parcels has its own fermenter. Wine is moved gently throughout the winery via the force of gravity. Optical scanners controlled by sophisticated computer algorithms sort the fruit. Each fermenter is also a sophisticated data-gathering device:

Each pharmaceutical-grade fermenter contains five independent heating and cooling zones and is hooked up to and controlled by a machine-learning, AI-assisted computer program that the data science graduate Palmaz helped design. It’s called FILCS, which stands for Fermentation Intelligence Logic Control System and is pronounced “Felix.”

And the hi-tech continues in the vineyard:

Every Monday and Thursday at noon, Palmaz’s Cessna 172 plane flies 8,500 feet over its vineyards, capturing infrared images of the terrain below using a multispectral camera. The aim is to measure the amount of chlorophyll in each vine, which is a good indicator of the plants’ metabolic rate and therefore general happiness.

Another AI system analyzes data for each vine allowing fine-tuning of  the irrigation system.

This only scratches the surface but you get the picture. Nothing is left to chance and the aim is to give the winemaker absolute control over every dimension of the winegrowing and winemaking process.

The question posed by author Tim McKirdy is a bit off the mark:

Is a winery’s pursuit of perfection — its quest to stamp out every flaw that may arise on a grape’s journey from vineyard to bottle — ultimately worth it if it risks losing the intangible romanticism of traditional winemaking?

The issue isn’t really about “intangible romanticism” whatever that is. The clear difference between winemaking at Palmaz and artisan winemaking is prediction and control. Palmaz doesn’t want surprises; artisan winemakers live with surprises every day. That is really the issue.

If you enjoy wine only because it tastes good, Palmaz is the future of winemaking. I’m sure their wines are delicious.

But some people are fascinated by wine because of the continuous, unpredictable variations it produces. We think a wine should always surprise us and we open every bottle hoping to be astonished. Nature is likely to be more creative than a human who is constrained by costs, sales, customer expectations, and what the critics are likely to say. And we think witnessing nature’s creativity is worth paying for even when the result is flawed.

This is not intangible. And there is nothing romantic about bad vintages, barrels that go off, and a warehouse full of wine that won’t sell. That’s the price to be paid for astonishment.

I doubt that a Palmaz wine will ever cause anyone’s jaw to drop.

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