A decade ago, I got a call from a researcher at UC Davis who was doing work on a topic she wouldn’t disclose.
As a graduate student at that most professional educational institution, she was using extreme caution about telling anyone anything that might alter her work. She invited me to be part of the project, analyzing wine.
Days later, I joined six of Sonoma County’s most skilled wine makers. We were ushered into slightly darkened cubicles where we each got 17 glasses of wine.
But something else was at play. The glasses were black; we could not see the color of the wine.
The researcher asked us to rank the wines — but she never specified what the criterion should be to create this ranking! “Rank them however you wish,” she said.
Moreover, we had to create this ranking based solely on the wines’ aroma. We could not taste at all.
The test was remarkably confounding since we had no idea what the wines were, not even their color.
After sniffing all 17 glasses, I finally deduced that the wines probably were red, and noted that most of them had evidence they had been aged in barrels. I decided to rank the wines based on intensity of oak.
Weeks later, while the project continued, we all learned that the researcher was seeking a ranking based on the intensity of pyrazine, the herbal element common in cabernet sauvignon.
The most intriguing aspect of this episode was the use of the black glass, and the fact that we were being asked to do an analysis without tasting.
Wine is an overwhelmingly complex beverage, and most of its intrigue comes not from its alcoholic content or any overt oak flavors. What makes wines different from one another go back to the grape variety (or varieties) used, how they were grown, the region they come from, and how the wine maker treated the liquid they imparted.
All of which leads to a multitude of subtleties, most of which contribute to the complexity we seek in fine wine.
When we pick up a glass of chardonnay and see that its color is bronze, our minds lead us to the conclusion that the wine isn’t fresh, and more than likely is old and probably tired.
But color can be misleading, which food researchers long have known.
Could a boxed cake mix be successful if the “chocolate” icing were blue? What would the world think of a clear Coke, even if the aroma and flavor were identical to the original? (Crystal Pepsi anyone?)
So color counts for a lot. When we buy a pumpkin-flavored cornbread mix, even if there’s no pumpkin or corn in the mix, the company is certain to use yellow and orange pigments to make the final product appetizing.
It’s why minty-flavored things are green, why sriracha flavored things are orangey-red, why banana-flavored things are yellow.
And why cherry coloring is darker than strawberry coloring.
Writer Maxine Weber of Snack Food and Wholesale Bakery Magazine wrote in a recent issue, “Color can be a visual cue that a product’s flavor is both authentic and appetizing — and even that it has positive nutritional aspects. This is one reason deep purples are trending up, notes Karen Brimmer, bakery and dry grocery application manager at Sensient Colors, St. Louis.”
So the wine researcher was being ultra cautious in her analysis of the red wines that we were asked to rank, making certain that we would not even get a color cue before helping her identify what she wanted for her project.
If there is a message from this tale, it’s just that I no longer use color as a measure of a wine’s quality. I do not buy wine based on what it looks like.
A gorgeous color may be nice, but color has no aroma or taste.
Wine of the Week: 2014 Sarah’s Vineyard Chardonnay, Santa Clara Valley ($20): Santa Clara Valley once was home to some historic grapevines, and produced some of California’s best wines. Over the last 40 years, housing has usurped vast vineyard blocks, and what grapes remain are hidden in Gilroy on small parcels. This small winery has long made elegant wines, none more exciting than this dramatic and stylish, lighter weight Chardonnay. Lemon oil, faint tropical notes, excellent acidity, and very subtle oak give this wine superb drinkability. Great value.