“It smells like strong, hard plastic, like perm solution.”
“Yes, the melted plastic carries through on the finish.”
That wine — I won’t name names — did not make the cut in Wine Access’ super-selective, scientific wine judging panel, which I sat in on last month at Napa’s The Kitchen Collective.
The panel is composed of three experts:
- Matt Deller, one of only 45 Masters of Wine in the U.S.;
- Sur Lucero, who passed all three sections of his Master Sommelier exam on the first attempt and has worked in restaurants like The French Laundry and Meadowood;
- Vanessa Conlin, a Master of Wine candidate who has passed the theory portion of her exams.
To say the scene was intimidating, would be a giant understatement.
Founded in 1998, Wine Access was brought under new ownership two years ago and underwent a total rebrand, plus a cross-country move in 2017. In its refreshed state, the California-based company acts as a place for wine drinkers to discover extraordinary wines, via daily finds and an online store.
Sure, you’ve heard it before. But Wine Access takes a sophisticated and rigorous approach, using a technique called sensory science, with the goal of accurately matching consumers with wines they have yet to discover, but nevertheless will love.
During the panel, each judge sat with a computer in front of them, and they all worked simultaneously on a shared Google spreadsheet, recording their scores and notes on each wine tasted.
For much of the time, conversation stopped; the only sounds were of swirling, swishing, and typing. But like any workplace, even nontraditional ones where drinking is essentially your job, little breaks are necessary here and there, for bantering and watching funny YouTube videos, of course.
And after roughly 90 minutes, 12 wines and a handful of silly videos, the day’s selection process resulted in an unusually high acceptance rate: 50 percent, with six wines making the cut to be sold on Wine Access’ website. Among the day’s winners was a Sonoma Coast pinot noir from Red Car Wine Company and a sancerre from Domaine Raimbault-Pineau.
It was considered a successful session, for just a few days earlier, Deller said that only four out of 40 wines passed.
Using sensory science techniques, Wine Access’ vetting process requires throwing wine tasting’s biggest variable —subjectivity — out the window and replacing it with cold, hard objectivity. Instead of judging the wines based on their personal taste preferences, the expert judges score based on facts, like a wine’s concentration, complexity, balance, texture and length, to determine if it’s worthy of being offered to Wine Access buyers.
This means that sometimes, the judges reward a higher score to a wine they don’t personally love as much as a wine they gave a lower score. And because it’s all objective, the team members rarely disagree.
“Taste can be quite a subjective thing, so we’re bringing objectivity and scientific rigor to the tasting process. Sensory science it basically science, but using the palate,” Deller said.
One of the biggest differences from other judging panels is that Wine Access does not taste blind. With each wine, they can see the label, and according to Deller, it’s with good reason.
“When I had a similar role in a similar company, and was doing products for the same initiative, we found that the results from the blind tasting weren’t as good as the results as the sighted tasting,” Deller said. “There are so many nuances and things that sort of come into play. For example, if you know that a certain producer tends to use whole cluster ferment, then you’ll be more understanding of certain elements in the wine.”
The same, he said, goes for a natural wine producer. The wine may have unusual characteristics that in a blind tasting, would be viewed negatively. The sighted method essentially gives all wines a fair trial.
Wine Access judges each wine on a 100-point scale, and only wines that receive 90 points and above make the cut. The wines are from all over the world, with a focus on small and sometimes cult producers that can’t be easily found elsewhere. Currently in their store, you’ll likely recognize local producers like Orin Swift (creator of The Prisoner), Moone-Tsai Vineyards from Philippe Melka, Matthiasson Wines and Oakville Ranch.
Value is also of the utmost importance, so factored into that score is the wine’s ability to overdeliver at its price. This means the wine needs to be viewed exceptional at any price, whether it’s $20 or $200.
But that’s just the beginning.
After initial observations and scoring, the next big step is profiling, which is where sensory science comes in. The team has developed a set of intensity scales (0-3) for scoring six main attributes in wine: oak, fruit intensity, acidity, tannin, body and sweetness.
The team then goes into descriptive analysis, noting other key attributes, like red fruit or blue fruit, herbaceousness, meatiness and spice. They discuss specific food pairings, everything from red meat and cured meat to shellfish and finfish, and make other notes, like the ideal temperature to sip it at, or whether or not the wine needs extra time to open up.
It sounds a bit over the top, but Wine Access isn’t simply trying to create the most epic tasting notes you’ve ever read. They’re actually working on developing an Artificial Intelligence (AI) system to help wine consumers confidently discover wines they’ll enjoy drinking.
Other companies have tried profiling customers half-heartedly, sending out questionnaires related to coffee preferences, or a sampling of wine vials to taste through, along with a comment card to fill out. But without saying the words exactly, it’s clear that Deller says those tactics are a joke.
“First of all, your taste in coffee has no relationship to your taste in wine,” Deller said. “Second, all of these rely on people who aren’t trained to taste. If a sensory scientist looked at this and considered it as a way of matching wine to people’s taste, they’d just laugh it out of the room.”
So if Wine Access were a dating site, it would be Match.com. You know, the one that claims to have the most robust and intricate formula to find you your one true love?
And yet while the jury is out on whether science alone can lead to a lasting relationship, Wine Access seems to be onto something with wine. Over the next couple of years, they will work simultaneously on building their database of profiled wines, and also their database of customer purchases. By recording all of this data, they will develop the AI system, which Deller said will be able to provide “very accurate and specific recommendations’’ to customers.
The idea is to recreate the in-restaurant sommelier experience, where patrons ask the sommelier for a recommendation. Usually, the sommelier’s first questions is, “What are you favorite wines?”
After learning their answer, the sommelier, who has a massive database of wines tasted stored in their brain, makes a recommendation for a wine that has a similar profile to the wine(s) mentioned by the patron.
This is essentially what the AI system will do digitally for Wine Access customers. If a customer has a re-purchase history of a Mount Veeder cabernet for instance, Deller said they may then get matched up with an Argentinian malbec, which would fit the same profile as a Mount Veeder cab. This opens up a whole new world of wine for the customer, who may have never tried or considered malbec from Argentina.
“We’re wanting to sort of embrace people who want to take things to the next level, but aren’t there yet. We want to help them on their journey,” Deller said. “What we do today, is we only sell really good wine that over delivers for the money, and then tomorrow, we’ll only sell wine that over delivers for the money and you’ll like.”