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NorCal Wine Blog

New Research: How Our Brains Categorize Aromas

You smell. I do too. Scientists can’t tell us precisely how though.

The physical structures that allow us to sense aromas are well-known, but the way we parse and categorize olfactory information is much less clear. Our sense of smell isn’t connected to the brain through the same pathways as our visual, auditory and tactile sensors. It’s not even connected to the same part of the brain.

A trio of researchers has just published a paper that may improve our understanding slightly. The study is called Categorical Dimensions of Human Odor Descriptor Space Revealed by Non-Negative Matrix Factorization. It’s authors are Jason B. Castro, Arvind Ramanthan and Chakra S. Chennubhotla—a neuroscientist, a computational scientist and an expert in computational and systems biology.

As you may have gathered from the title, it’s written for researchers and experts not the general interest reader. The article assumes considerable prior knowledge, is replete with specialized terminology and features several pages of text such as “we first examined the structure of H, the matrix of odor weights obtained from NMF (recall that H corresponds to an odor), and defines a point in 10-dimensional descriptor spaced spanned by W.” The paper is freely available online though, so you might read it skim it look at the colored charts.

Here’s the gist of it:
As we pick up an aroma, our brain rapidly identifies a number of attributes for the scent. Unlike our sense of taste which we know to resolve just five flavor dimensions (sour, sweet, salty, bitter and umami), there are many potential attributes for smell. They have not been fully identified, prioritized or explained. And the number of these dimensions for any particular aroma is very large which makes analyzing or categorizing the totality of an aroma extremely complex.

The authors applied mathematical algorithms, used in other areas of science to simplify complex, multi-dimensional data, to olfaction. This enabled them to do two things. First, it proved that this particular analytical approach [non-negative matrix factorization] is effective with respect to analysis of smells. Second, the researchers were able to identify what appear to be the ten principal qualities or categories of aromas, each category linked to a number of molecules that generate such aromatics.

These basic categories each have many incarnations but, for simple identification, might be labeled by their most prominent members: fragrant/floral, woody/resinous, fruity (non-citrus), putrid/decayed, chemical, minty/peppermint, sweet, popcorn, pungent and lemon/citrus. Here’s a table showing those categories and the most important members of each.

If you’ve seen wine aroma wheels or aroma categories used by sommeliers or WSET, then the table will look quite familiar. There are interesting differences though. For example, citrus and non-citrus fruit are clearly delineated but non-citrus such as cherry, pineapple and banana are all in the same category. There is also overlap. Cut grass falls into woody/resinous but also citrus. Some attributes are more general characteristics than analogs to physical objects. For example, floral, citrus, sweet and fruity categories can all result in an aroma being described as “light.”

10 vectors
From Categorical Dimensions of Human Odor Descriptor Space Revealed by Non-Negative Matrix Factorization

Further studies using this mathematical technique may break a lot more ground for industries such as wine and perfume. The current analysis was based on a standard set of aromas used by researchers. It may not have included specific notes of interest to us, like oak and aspects of minerality. And it clearly wasn’t a goal to prioritize wine-centric aromas in any way.

I look forward to follow up efforts. Better understanding how our brains naturally categorize wine-related aromas will help us become better analytical tasters. It will also guide us in communicating aromas to consumers in the way they will most readily grasp.


Follow NorCalWine on Twitter for breaking wine news, information on events and more. Become a fan and join the NorCal Wine community on FacebookAlso check out our comprehensive Northern California winery listings. They are very useful for planning a tasting trip or just getting in touch with a winery.

This article is original to Copyright 2013 NorCal Wine. All rights reserved.

Upcoming Wine Events for September 20 - 23

Celebrate Grenache Day with the North Coast Rhone Rangers in Healdsburg—Friday, 3-7pm

rhone rangers logoJust 33 tickets remain for this intimate but lively celebration of Grenache at the Stark tasting room in downtown Healdsburg. Eleven wineries will be pouring various incarnations of Grenache, one of California’s most celebrated grapes these days. Look for blends and rosés as well as varietal Grenache Noir and Grenache Blanc from a range of appellations.

Tickets are just $15 in advance, a killer deal. Be sure to RSVP for the after-party when you buy your tickets too. There’ll be live music and wine for sale by the glass, but attendance is limited to just 50 people.

Mount Veeder Appellation Tasting at Hess Collection Winery in Napa—Saturday, 1-4pm

The Mt. Veeder AVA is often, but undeservedly, overlooked in discussions about the best wines of Napa Valley. It’s a truly unique growing region with distinctive wines. This tasting brings together most producers of wine from the region. There will be delicious Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Syrah, Zinfandel, Malbec, Zinfandel, Albariño and more.

In addition to the wine, there’ll be food prepared by Hess Collection Winery’s executive chef and live music. And bring a hat, the tastings are typically outside under the arbor.

Los Gatos Fall Wine Walk in downtown/Old Town Los Gatos—Saturday, 1:30-5:30

Taste wines from more than 40 wineries, sample food from local restaurants and enjoy live music in lovely Los Gatos. Tickets are $40 and include a wine glass. Online sales close at 11pm on September 19 (unless the event sells out sooner).

California Pinot Noir tasting at Beltramo’s in Menlo Park—Saturday, 2:30-5:30pm

Taste nine Pinot Noir some of California’s most celebrated vineyards made by very good, artisanal producers. The cost is $37. Advance tickets are not required.
Beltramo’s: 1540 El Camino Real, Menlo Park 94025

Wines currently scheduled for tasting are:
2007 Greg Linn Pinot Noir, Rim Rock Vineyard, San Luis Obispo County
2007 Arcadian Pinot Noir, Sleepy Hollow Vineyard, Santa Lucia Highlands
2010 Waits-Mast Pinot Noir, Londer Vineyard, Anderson Valley
2010 Waits-Mast Pinot Noir, Oppenlander Vineyard, Anderson Valley
2011 Deovlet Pinot Noir Santa Barbara County
2011 Deovlet Pinot Noir, La Encantada Vineyard, Sta. Rita Hills
2011 Sandhi Pinot Noir, Sanford & Benedict Vineyard, Sta. Rita Hills
2011 Daniel Pinot Noir, Soberanes Vineyard, Santa Lucia Highlands
2011 Daniel Pinot Noir, Sierra Mar Vineyard, Santa Lucia Highlands


Follow NorCalWine on Twitter for breaking wine news, information on events and more. Become a fan and join the NorCal Wine community on FacebookAlso check out our comprehensive Northern California winery listings. They are very useful for planning a tasting trip or just getting in touch with a winery.

This article is original to Copyright 2013 NorCal Wine. All rights reserved.

Building Brands for a Winery and Region Simultaneously - Goodland Wines

Last week I wrote about brands, brand building and the difficulty of doing that in the wine business. One of the big challenges is that the very thing which makes wine so compelling—it’s complexity and variability from one place, vintage or winemaker to the next—disallows the consistency that many consumers need to develop brand affinity. A second issue is that “sub-brands,” such as varietal or regional designations, provide important information but can also detract from the strength of the main brand.

For example, a typical consumer may think all Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon are pretty much alike and purchase in that category based on price rather than winery brand. Or consumers may prefer to buy any New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, even if they’ve not tasted it, over any Happy Canyon Sauvignon Blanc regardless of winery name. The former has a powerful brand against which any Sauvignon Blanc must compete for attention no matter how different the style.

One way to eliminate these problematic comparisons is to avoid mention of the varietal. If you have a very good and unique Sauvignon Blanc from Happy Canyon, just call it a Happy Canyon White Wine. You still need to build your own brand, and that of Happy Canyon, but you won’t be doing it in the shadow of New Zealand. This is exactly the approach Goodland is taking in Santa Barbara County.

Goodland is a new producer in that region. It’s essentially a four-partner company. Matt Dees is best known as winemaker for Jonata but has also did work at Staglin and Craggy Range. Dave Potter makes wine and works the room for Municipal Wines in Santa Barbara. Ruben Solorzano, affectionately called “the grape whisperer,” is a very highly respected vineyard manager who tends many plots in Santa Barbara County. He lives in the middle of Stolpman Vineyard which he’s managed since 1994. Chris Snowden has worked in cellar management and sales at various wineries, including his family’s Snowden Vineyards in Napa Valley.

When I first heard about their project I was skeptical. Buyers of California wine are accustomed to buying on a varietal basis. Few of those buyers know much about California’s wine regions either, or even what an appellation is. Beyond Napa Valley, Russian River Valley, Paso Robles and two or three others, AVAs are a total mystery to the average wine drinker. Most will think of Santa Barbara County as the place where the town of Santa Barbara is, not a place that good wine comes from.

The idea of launching a wholly new wine brand in Santa Barbara County with labels that refer only to region, not varietal, seemed masochistic to me. I thought it more likely to confuse customers than help them. I anticipated a difficult sales job. But the more I consider the situation, the smarter it seems.

First, production quantities at Goodland are small. They are unlikely to get stuck with inventory. Goodland’s highest volume wine is just 81 cases.

Second, the pricing is moderate. Matt Dees and Ruben Solorzano told me they want to makes wine they and their friends can afford to buy. Bottles range from $15 to $40. That’s high enough to allay concerns that the somewhat generic names signal. On-premise prices can stay below $50 for whites and $100 for reds.

Third, they are avoiding those troublesome comparisons with other wine regions’ varietals. Goodland needn’t compete as directly against Russian River Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc or Napa Valley Cabernet. Nor do they have to deal with Syrah’s cursed brand.

For more detail, please watch this video interview I did with Matt Dees and Ruben Solorzano.


Tasting Notes for Goodland wines, tasted on August 12, 2013

2011 Goodland Sta. Rita Hills White Wine, $35
Chardonnay is far and away the most-planted white wine grape in the Sta. Rita Hills AVA. Matt Dees fermented this one in neutral barrels and allowed little to no malolactic fermentation. The lees were stirred every two or three days. The Goodland Sta. Rita Hills White is elegant and complex on nose and palate with ripe lemon-lime, dry grass, green apple skin, baking spice and accents of stone fruit. Medium-plus body and acidity, lengthy finish. Highly Recommended.



2011 Goodland Happy Canyon White, $25
Happy Canyon is, relative to Sta. Rita Hills, quite warm. It’s still a bit cooler than Oakville though. Hot days and radically cooler mights make it a happy canyon for Sauvignon Blanc. With stainless steel fermentation and no malolactic fermentation, this wine is a study in fresh citrus and acidity. The nose shows lime, grapefruit and mineral. The very fresh, medium-bodied palate has fine-grained texture and adds flavors of green apple and tart stone fruit to the persistent citrus and minerality. Lengthy finish. Highly Recommended.





2011 Sta. Rita Hills Red, $40
While not as dominant in the Sta. Rita Hills for red wines as Chardonnay is for white, Pinot Noir is still the AVA’s signature red grape. 2010 was arguably the coldest growing season that always cool appellation has seen. However, 2011 wasn’t much warmer and lacked the late season heat spike that provided a final push to ripeness in 2010. Goodland’s Pinot Noir comes is lithe and flavorful but just 12.2% alcohol. Earthy red fruit—especially cherry—brown spice, savory herb, cherry stem, smoke and dried orange zest. The palate is finely textured and sophisticated with medium body and medium-plus length. Highly Recommended.



2010 Santa Ynez Valley Red Wine, $25
This Syrah/Grenache blend was the first wine in the Goodland project. Dees said he was looking for a fruit-driven wine of density, not worrying about representing a single variety. It’s ripe and slightly earthy with plum and other black fruit, dark spice and partially dried herb. The palate adds elements of dark chocolate, smoke and old leather. The light-grained tannins and body are just short of medium-plus, the finish lengthy. Highly Recommended.



2011 Happy Canyon Red Wine, $40
While Goodland looks to build awareness for Santa Barbara County’s appellations and wine styles, they aren’t afraid to dance on the edge. When it comes to this Cabernet Sauvignon for example, they went old-school (late 70’s Napa) rather than building a fleshy, hedonistic wine. In Happy Canyon, that meant going high-elevation. There you have not only the big—up to 50 degrees—diurnal temperature shift but also howling winds that limit bunch count, berry size and ripening. Highly Recommended.

Dees told me the grapes for this wine were tiny and it took a couple days of foot stomping to get the juice out. In the glass, it’s what Dees called “dusty, herbal and angular in the best way possible.” I found plenty of fruit, but it’s not even in the same universe as jammy.

Dry forest floor and herb, spice, trail dust, dried flowers, red currant and cherry on the nose. Medium-plus body, acidity and tannins (fine-grained and powdery). Flavors match the aromas but add cocoa and black olive to the mix. The finish is quite long. Decanting will be beneficial as will extended cellar aging.



2011 Ballard Canyon Red Wine, $35
“Ballard Canyon is like [the porridge that’s just right in Goldilocks and] the Three Bears, not too cold and not too hot,” Dees says. “And it’s got that hint of corruption than makes Syrah so cool.” I was the one that came away corrupted though. The 2011 Ballard Canyon Red has a split personality but both are beguiling.

Aromatically, it is floral with high-toned spice and purple fruit, leading me to expect a slender palate framed by acid. But no, it’s a nearly full-bodied wine with moderate acidity but a wealth of fine-powdery and talc-like tannins. The flavors of mocha, leather and lush black fruit and just delicious. Very Highly Recommended.


Follow NorCalWine on Twitter for breaking wine news, information on events and more. Become a fan and join the NorCal Wine community on FacebookAlso check out our comprehensive Northern California winery listings. They are very useful for planning a tasting trip or just getting in touch with a winery.

This article is original to Copyright 2013 NorCal Wine. All rights reserved.

Chardonnay and Botrytis

Typically when we think of botrytis, it’s with respect to Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon or Chenin Blanc. When "noble rot" comes together with those grapes, the result can be some of the world’s very best dessert wines, including Beerenauslese, Trockenbeerenauslese, Sauternes and Quarts de Chaume. Chardonnay is less vulnerable to botrytis than those varieties, but it’s not impervious.

I spied noble rot hiding in scattered Chardonnay bunches while touring some vineyards just before harvest began this year. Fortunately, botrytized Chardonnay provides attractive flavors. And, since the amount of affected grapes in any one block or vineyard is typically quite low, the bunches with botrytis can be fermented with unaffected grapes and the resulting wine will still be dry and very much a typical Chardonnay. Some winemakers appreciate the added complexity botrytis provides. Others instruct pickers to leave afflicted bunches on the vine or simply remove them or  specific berries during sorting.

Botrytis on a Chardonnay bunch about two weeks before harvest.  Photo: Fred Swan, August 2013

A magnification of the same botrytized Chardonnay bunch. Photo: Fred Swan, August 2013

While botrytized grapes make their way into both dry Chardonnay and traditional sparkling wines, some vintners do produce late-harvest Chardonnay dessert wines. The ones I’ve tried were quite sweet and full-bodied but retained plenty of acidity. Flavors included ripe apple, peach, nectarine, pineapple and spice, plus botrytis’ own signature notes. The most recent bottles I enjoyed were from Sonoma Coast Vineyards. I highly recommend those, but they’re not on the standard list of available wines so you’ll need to contact the winery for availability.


Follow NorCalWine on Twitter for breaking wine news, information on events and more. Become a fan and join the NorCal Wine community on FacebookAlso check out our comprehensive Northern California winery listings. They are very useful for planning a tasting trip or just getting in touch with a winery.

This article is original to Copyright 2013 NorCal Wine. All rights reserved.

Brand Building in the Wine Business, It Ain’t Easy

A brand is a set of expectations. We think of McDonalds and Coca-Cola as brands, but those are just the names. The golden arches and red can with white script are the brands’ symbols. The real brands are the collected expectations those names and symbols represent. Whether you like the products or not, you know exactly what a Big Mac is, how McDonalds french fries differ from those of Wendy’s and can tell the difference between Coke and Pepsi in a blind tasting.

320px-McDonalds Times SquareMcDonalds and Coca-Cola are strong brands not because we recognize the name but because we know what they stand for. Decades of advertising and your personal experience with their extremely consistent products have almost literally etched their products into your brain. How many wine brands can you say that about?

Building a brand is difficult and expensive. It requires uniformity of products, seemingly endless repetition of messaging and many, many personal experiences with the product by each target consumer. This presents serious challenges for the wine industry.

The first problem is that the quality and character of wine is subject to change from year to year because of weather, harvest dates, increasing vine age, circumstances during fermentation and numerous other factors. Compounding that lack of constancy is the fact that wine changes as it ages in bottle. Consumers may drink it any time from the date of release to many years later. And then there’s the way serving temperature affects a wine. The only wineries that can achieve anything like the product consistency of a McDonalds or a Coca-Cola are those that produce at very high volume and don’t mind using additives—or at least blending multiple vintages as in Champagne— to build wine to a relatively simple and specific flavor profile.

Another issue is that fine wines often have complicated, multi-part names. In one hand we hold a McDonalds Big Mac sandwich. In the other we clutch a 2011 Wind Gap Chardonnay James Berry Vineyard Paso Robles. Which is easier to understand? The Big Mac is, or was, a cute but generic name. Today we know it to be just one thing, a two-patty, three-bun burger with cheese, shredded lettuce and special sauce.

wind gap bottleshot whiteBut the wine’s name is full of variables. You can tell Wind Gap is the winery name and you may be aware they make small-production wines of individual character and high-quality.

Next we see “Chardonnay.” Okay, that’s easy. Most wine lovers know that Chardonnay is a white wine. Experienced sippers will know that Chardonnay is a dry wine... except when it’s a little bit sweet.

What else do we know about Chardonnay?

  • Chardonnay smells and tastes like lemon or green apple or yellow apple or pear or peach of varying degrees of ripeness. And it can have accents of chalk or limestone, lemon curd or cheese rind, baking spice or flowers...
  • Chardonnay is fermented with native or commercial yeast
  • Chardonnay undergoes malolactic fermentation making it round and buttery or partial malolactic fermentation making it a little crisp, a little smooth and not very buttery or no malolactic fermentation keeping it very crisp and medium-bodied.
  • Chardonnay is fermented in oak, stainless steel or, very rarely, concrete.
  • Chardonnay is aged in new oak, probably French, or aged in neutral oak or it’s not aged at all.

So far so good? We also know 2011 was the vintage and have heard it was a cool year. But then the grapes came from Paso Robles which we know to be warm. So that means...? And wait, isn’t Paso Robles best-known for Cabernet Sauvignon? No worries! It’s from the James Berry Vineyard which is kind of famous. Um... for Syrah.

Please allow me a brief aside. Lately it’s been fashionable to bash tasting notes and call them unnecessary. If, after simply reading the name of this wine— that was made from America’s most popular grape by a famous, small winery from a vineyard that has produced 100-point wines in an AVA that’s one of the United States’ best-known—you can honestly say you know what that wine is like, then you’ve either tasted the wine before or your name is Larry Stone. For everyone else, here’s my tasting note which is way better than nothing.

2011 Wind Gap Chardonnay James Berry Vineyard Paso Robles
The grapes came from the vineyard’s last remaining block of Chardonnay (own-rooted, 50-year old vines of Wente clone). The juice was fermented with native yeast in concrete and stainless steel tanks, then aged 12 months in neutral French oak barrels. The wine is medium to medium-plus in body with matching acidity and light-grained texture. The nose is controlled but expressive, the palate even more forthcoming. Aromas and flavors of yellow apple are embellished with notes of baking spice, apple blossom and dusty soil. Highly Recommended.

So, back to branding. The complexity of wine makes it very difficult. That is true whether we’re talking about a single bottle of wine, a winery producing many different wines or even a growing region.

If you’re trying to build recognition for an AVA, you have to educate consumers on it’s character. That character is determined at minimum by its climate, topography, soils and principal varieties, plus the quality and style of its wineries. There is also a danger that the region will be overshadowed by individual producers or the grape varieties.

French wines are labeled by region rather than variety. That’s great at building awareness for the region, perhaps too good. I can’t tell you how many Americans I meet who think Burgundy is a grape variety.

Here in California we tend to label varietally. I’m convinced this straightforward approach helps the average consumer. It doesn’t help regions though. As with the wine above, our eyes go first to the winery and then to the grape. People often stop reading at that point, especially if the producer is recognized and the variety something common like Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc.

So how do you go about building the brand for a region? Next week I’ll tell you about one winery’s attempt to do exactly that. It’s a cool, if quixotic, project.

Follow NorCalWine on Twitter for breaking wine news, information on events and more. Become a fan and join the NorCal Wine community on FacebookAlso check out our comprehensive Northern California winery listings. They are very useful for planning a tasting trip or just getting in touch with a winery.

This article is original to Copyright 2013 NorCal Wine. Photo of McDonalds in Times Square by Sallicio. McDonalds and the golden arches are registered trademarks of McDonalds. All rights reserved.