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Oregon Trains Wine Tasters

Workshops train 60 winemakers to participate in sensory analysis research

by Peter Mitham
James Osborne
James Osborne of the Oregon Wine Research Institute and Oregon State University helped train winemakers to join a pool of 60 tasters for wine sensory analysis.
Corvallis, Ore.—Sixty Oregon winemakers have been trained to serve as an industry tasting panel to evaluate wines made from research plots in the state.

The new panel is the successor to a similar panel convened in the late 1990s and overseen by Oregon State University professors Barney Watson and Mina McDaniel.

“What we’re wanting to do is to set up, to train a large number of winemakers to utilize them for doing some sensory analysis of experimental, research wines,” said James Osborne, extension enologist with the Oregon Wine Research Institute and an assistant professor in Oregon State’s Faculty of Food Science and Technology.

While a given panel might have 10-15 tasters, Osborne said having a pool of 60 people to draw on would ensure that there are indeed 10 to 15 people available when needed.

“What we wanted to do was have a large number of people to call upon,” Osborne said. “The feedback I got from Barney (Watson) was the difficulty (is in) always getting enough winemakers in one place at one time to be able to do this.”

With the assistance of $25,000 from the Erath Family Foundation, two sold-out workshops were held earlier this year. Offered in the Willamette Valley and in Southern Oregon, the workshops attracted 30 winemakers each, including Michael Davies of A to Z Wineworks and Rex Hill Vineyards and Ben Casteel of Bethel Heights Vineyard.

The workshops familiarized participants with the methodology and protocols for sensory analysis of wines and provided practical training in tasting wines using a ballot of descriptive terms to achieve consistency in the use of the terms.

Carolyn Ross, an associate professor in Washington State University’s School of Food Science in Pullman, Wash., led the workshops with Osborne.

The training was important because conventional sensory analysis depends on having accepted terms for describing wines, but winemakers enjoy greater latitude in the cellar. This complicates sensory analysis because one person’s tropical fruit may be another person’s star fruit.

The variety of flavors has been the target of playful names for wines, such as the Cat’s Pee on a Gooseberry Bush Sauvignon Blanc made in New Zealand.

“Winemakers have their own kind of vocab for a lot of the things they’re tasting and smelling daily in the winery,” Osborne said.

The new industry panel will practice what’s known as free-choice profiling.

“Where trained panel work tries to get everyone to an agreement on terms and to get some consistency on use of specific terms, free-choice profiling utilizes more of their own vocabulary,” Osborne explained. “They develop their own ballot, basically, and they use their own terms in a consistent manner.”

The need for common ground
Researchers in France noted in a 2007 paper that free-choice profiling could yield descriptors that escape conventional profiling, providing a means of tapping the knowledge of industry professionals who lack formal training in sensory analysis.

The study examined analyses of Chenin Blanc wines. Trained tasting panelists used 17 agreed-upon terms, with one wine in particular being described as “stale” and “difficult to describe.”

The same wine, analyzed by a dozen industry professionals using free-profiling, described the same wine as exhibiting “stale,” “chemical” and “pharmaceutical” characters, or, in a word, a “flaw.”

All told, free-choice profiling yielded 109 different terms, including 69 that were used just once.

The diversity of terms poses challenges when collating the results of such an analysis.

“The training part of it is less intense, less time consuming, but on the back-end, the data analysis is a bit more involved,” Osborne told Wines & Vines. “There are some specific statistical techniques that you have to use.”

The fact that terms are not agreed upon in advance also means the analyses cannot be used in the same way, but Osborne believes the feedback the industry tasting panels provide will still be useful in assessing the wines made from test vineyard plots.

“It’s just a way to utilize their vocabulary, their experience,” he said. “It’s not the perfect sensory analysis tool for every situation, but how we’re going to use it. It kind of fits into what we’re looking to do.”

Anna Matzinger, winemaker at Archery Summit in Dayton, Oregon, said the industry tasting panel is a good idea, both for winemakers and researchers.

"It's great to be in a more technical tasting scenario," she said. "We're all very good at giving our opinions, but to be in a scenario where some objectification is necessary and it’s more analytical and less just, 'I liked it,' or, 'I didn’t.' I think anytime that we can go beyond that collectively as a group, it’s a good exercise."

At the same time, the panel will allow industry to provide candid feedback that helps researchers, in turn aligning the interests of both groups.

  The new panel will get its first taste of Oregon State’s research wines this summer, when it’s convened to assess wines made from a crop load study undertaken by extension viticulturist Patty Skinkis.

Vines at Stoller Vineyards in Dayton, Ore., and Maple Ranch Vineyard in Cave Junction, Ore., had clusters removed to determine the impact on wine quality. Tasters will gather, undergo a refresher course, and then be handed the wines in a blind tasting process.

“It’s a good way to involve industry in the projects that they’re funding through grants,” Osborne said. “A number of these projects they’re very interested in, and it’s nice for them to see the results in a glass versus reading a bunch of numbers off a research report.”

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