Back to Class with Maynard Amerine

Long ago I recovered a VHS of super star California oenologist Maynard Amerine giving a wine tasting lesson and had it digitized sight unseen so I could put it on youtube. The video turned out to be a 15 minute, horribly boring flop. It might have been the first of a series that was never continued.

Recently I checked up on that video and via a search for Maynard Amerine, it appears that UC Davis has uploaded a series of old 50 minute black & white lectures of Amerine’s from the early 1970′s.  These videos are an absolute treasure trove of insights into the history of modern wine making.

In the 15 minute video, Amerine, the world’s foremost wine scientist, is horribly dry and uninteresting but in his lectures he has the students laughing quite often although overall he is rather clinical. He tells short industry stories often and gives an intensely pragmatic vibe to what these days has become an often obnoxiously fetishized art.  What these days is presented as art, is not ancient, does not bypass new advancements in oenology, and is absolutely built on the backs of relatively recent government sponsored oenology research.

Amerine is simultaneously loved and loathed in the industry and two vermouth producing friends of the cocktail have presented me over the years with somewhat opposing views.  Andrew Quady of Vya fame was a student of Amerine’s and is I suspect an admirer while Carl Sutton of Sutton Cellars vermouth fame (and one of my favorite California dry wine producers), who is much younger than Quady, was always taught to be weary of Amerine.

The teachings of Amerine were a big force in homogenizing wine and allowing production to scale up to volumes where wine was made in silos.  Amerine’s lectures seem to continuously be emphasizing a low risk wine making style that many people today are thankfully rebelling against. It should be noted that Amerine lived in a different world where nearly every wine you tasted had common flaws.  Today by comparison, nearly all technical flaws have been eradicated and now when people find them, they mistake their low frequency of occurrence for a reflection of terroir. For shame!

When you spend time with the videos you can see why Amerine was risk averse.  Wine making across the world still had a foot in the dark ages in the 1970′s. He opens a reputable Borolo for the students and notes that it had a volatile acid (vinegar!) that was readily discernible. He also notes how many other wines stink of sulfur.  These days we have well proven guidelines for adding and maintaining sulfur and it is accurately measured and adjusted at numerous phases in the wine making process while back then if a winemaker had no lab skills, correct sulfur was probably only nailed by luck.

According to Amerine, Chianti in the 60′s and 70′s was still using the governo process of adding semi dried grapes to increase alcohol similar to Amarone.  This is something they abandoned and something few people are aware ever happened today.  Grape picking in much of the world was done not to brix / acid values, but to other strange cues like visible shriveling of the grapes.  Now we can have intellectual debates with Dennis Dubourdieu about oenological ripeness, but back then they were just scraping by and trying to fit picking in with their other chores.  Wine making was more ethanol centric and less flavor centric.  Origin controls were just starting to be implemented that would shape the European industry over the next three or four decades promoting a flavor centric approach.  Government sponsored research moved the industry forward in a way that it probably doesn’t get credit for.

To bring it back to Vermouth, long ago I had hypothesized that the reason people made vermouth and refined it into such a high art was that their tastes were often so far beyond their ability to produce stable & interesting tables wines. I don’t think anybody took the idea seriously because to understand it, you would have to under what table wine actually used to be like. Spending time with Amerine’s lectures readily supports my hypothesis (which I got from reading nearly all of Amerine’s books).

I could discuss countless of the little stories Amerine mentions but one of the most interesting is the use of new barrels in the industry which is a sort of chicken and egg scenario.  Extrapolating from Amerine, the reason the industry went on to fall in love with new barrels was because they were easier to take care of. This came before consumer demand which went on to exacerbate it.  Moldy barrels fouling the wine was a giant problem for the industry. If you weren’t good at taking care of your barrels, you simply bought new barrels every season, especially when you could command prices that supported the practice. In California, the love of new barrels may have started with risk aversion, lack of skill, and laziness.

Economists as well as Wall street types that love the adage: wine, women, and money, not necessarily in that order, might really benefit from studying the modern history of wine making, especially those that do not understand that there is a time and place for both public and private investment.  Government investment in a luxury product, wine, elevated the fortunes of large regions and again, so successfully you probably wouldn’t give the government any credit.  This advancement would have never been possible by private industry alone because multiple decades of foresight was necessary.  Margins were also low which is something that hinders private investment.  The studies also had to be coordinated over large, diverse areas and across simultaneously cooperating & competing countries to be successful which is something private investment likely could not negotiate.  When so many 1%ers try to recklessly slash government spending, it might be helpful to remember that something so near and dear to our hearts as wine would be nowhere with out it.

Italian Wines and Vermouth

Special and Flavored Wines

French Wines: Part One

French Wines: Part Two

Present State of Grape Growing and Winemaking

California Wines

California Wines and Red Wines

Lecture Review ** This lecture is more unique and interesting than the name implies. When he explains the Delle stabilization concept, I think he ends up hinting at the secret to Aperol’s low alcohol content relative to any other amaro or aromatized wine. The same goes for Cynar but less so. This is also a concept we can probably use for home vermouth making or even syrup making for special scenarios such as the consulting I do with Have Shaker Will Travel in the tropics. To push a 400 g/L syrup up to 80 Delle units, the alcohol content needs to be only 10.66% which is completely natural relative to additives like potassium sorbate and fairly affordable.  Delle stabilization can also change the way I’ve constructed alcohol preserved Maraschino cherries in the past.

Aperol has a specific gravity of 1.082 which puts its estimated sugar content not too far over 230 g/L. 230 g/L is about 20 brix so 20+(4.5*11) only puts Aperol at 69.5 Delle units so who knows what is going on with Aperol but there are more anecdotes by Amerine in this paper that show beverages being stable at far less than 80 DU.

Final Lecture

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