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August 2006 Issue of Wines & Vines
 
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Winery Dog Sniffs Out TCA:

Bloodhound to check all cork lots at Napa's Cliff Lede Vineyards

 
by Suzanne Gannon
 
 
Winery Dog Sniffs Out TCA
Still a pup, Miss Louisa Belle is a bloodhound with a mission--she's been trained to detect TCA in the winery and she's now learning to zero in on powdery mildew.
 
    HIGHLIGHTS
     

     
  • It is said that you can't teach an old dog new tricks, but Cliff Lede winemaker Michelle Edwards has taught her bloodhound to sniff out TCA.
     
  • Edwards' hound, Miss Louisa Belle, inspects small batches of corks when they arrive at the winery.
     
  • Bloodhounds are an ideal breed for TCA-sniffing duty, thanks to their powerful sense of smell and focused personalities.
They say you can't teach an old dog new tricks. But you can teach a new dog, which happens to boast a keen sense of smell, to detect 2, 4, 6-trichloroanisole (TCA), the nefariously odiferous compound responsible for tainting thousands of cork-sealed wines each year.

Michelle Edwards has done just that. The winemaker at Napa's Cliff Lede Vineyards has given Miss Louisa Belle, her 83-pound, 2-year-old bloodhound with a "hyper" personality, a new purpose: sparing the Stags Leap vintner the preventable loss of small-production bottles of Cabernet Sauvignon, Claret and Sauvignon Blanc that can retail for up to $120.

"I was looking for something to feed her curiosity," Edwards said. "She's very stubborn. If you don't give her something to focus on, she can be very frustrating."

Edwards and her fiancé Daniel Fischl, an agricultural scientist and viticulturist who works for David Abreu Vineyard Management, already owned Lord Wensleydale Francis Wigglesworth, a male English bulldog and Truffles, a female French bulldog, when they adopted this daughter of a search-and-rescue dog from a breeder in Sebastopol, Calif. Edwards began training the hound for her new job when the dog was about a year old. Over the course of several months, she treated corks with synthetic TCA and hid them in the yard of the Napa home she shares with Fischl. With the simple command, "Taint cork!" or "Inspect!" the bloodhound would spring into action, checking behind bushes and inside latticework, often chewing on the cork when she found it.

On a recent afternoon at the winery, Miss Louisa Belle strutted her stuff. She loped around the winery on her leggy frame, flews and dewlaps flying, snout sniffing. When called to attention, she identified which of the corks Edwards held in her hand was tainted by touching it with her wet nose, for which she was rewarded with a shred of pita bread. In the caves, she honed in on a tainted cork placed between barrels, and when not being tested on her intimacy with TCA, she happily gnawed on an old bung.

While Miss Louisa Belle's olfactory achievements may not be scaleable for a winery whose production exceeds 150,000 bottles, Edwards plans to use her for cork trials before deciding which lots to purchase, and may bring her into the winery when it receives new cooperage.

"At this point in time I am committed to making her our cork QC partner 100% of the time in all of the lots we will be sampling," Edwards said. "If her findings are accurate and supported by lab analyses, olfactory detection (by) my winemaking staff, etc., she may find herself on the payroll."

"I'm not surprised at all that Miss Louisa Belle is being used in this way," said Susan Hamil Lacroix, a Laguna Beach-based bloodhound breeder with 12 hounds of her own, who also serves as an American Kennel Club judge.

"Bloodhounds have well-developed olfactory abilities, and a very focused and intense personality," according to Hamil Lacroix. "They can sniff out things that other dogs would give up on (including) dead bodies encased in concrete for years. They're really only limited by (humans') ability to understand them."

Long associated with royalty, bloodhounds trace their noble origins to seventh or eighth century France, where they are said to have been bred by the monk St. Hubert, patron saint of hunters, to track wild game. Today, bloodhounds are used by police in cold trail crime scene and missing person investigations, and the FBI maintains an elite pack that flies around the country whenever duty calls.

Outside of the winery, Miss Louisa Belle lives a dog's life. She visits the groomer once a week for a shampoo, tooth-brushing and pedicure; supplements her dog diet with frequent snacks of oil-popped popcorn and lamb, and possesses a strong proclivity for destroying shoes and lingerie--particularly in harvest season. Typically she begins her day  with a 6 a.m. outing to the dog park, where she can often be seen showing off her skills as a high-jumping Frisbee catcher.

Edwards' resourceful re-purposing of her canine from pet to employee is just one of the innovations she has made since arriving at Cliff Lede in 2004. After a research trip with Cliff Lede and his wife to Bordeaux in the fall of 2004, Edwards returned to Napa and began working on a plan not only to incorporate the new truncated fermentation tanks she had seen in France, but also to design the entire winery--with the help of Lede and architect Howard Backen.

"For someone who hasn't spent 25 years in the business, she did an incredible job," said Lede, owner of the winery. "Innovation is one of her strongest attributes."

As for Miss Louisa Belle, responding to the command "Taint cork!" is not her only talent. Edwards' fiancé Fischl is currently training the dog to detect powdery mildew, although he says he has not yet developed an effectively succinct command.

"She's really good at covering vineyard rows quickly; she goes under and crisscrosses, unlike humans, (who) don't like to cross among them," Fischl said. When he taps the canes with his hand, he said, "she checks the exact spot."

Spotting spider web-like powdery mildew? A noble purpose, indeed.

(Based in New York, Suzanne Gannon writes about travel, culture, food and wine. She spent several years in the wine business. Her work has appeared in Town & Country, Art & Antiques, Executive Traveler and Via, among others. Reach her through edit@winesandvines.com.)
 
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