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Leo McCloskey talks about how wineries get high wine scores.

Wine consultant Leo McCloskey's company, Enologix, analyzes mountains of data to advise wineries about how to make high-scoring wines.
[Image courtesy of www.taste3.com]

California (State Appellation)

Leo McCloskey is against wine scores...

...but for a fee will tell you how to obtain high ones.

Part 1 of a 2-Part Series

by Alan Goldfarb
July 24, 2007

At the conclusion of a far-ranging, two-hour interview, Leo McCloskey – the man they deride for teaching winemakers how to make wine by-the-numbers in order to achieve high numbers by the critics – has this pronouncement:
“I’m against scores, but the scores have their foot on the necks of my clients.”

And here we all thought that McCloskey - the founder of the Sonoma, Ca. company Enologix that was formed to help producers “understand how ratings are good for the consumer” - was the industry’s frontman in its quest to chase ratings. More specifically, the coveted 90-plus score that Americans seem to lean on for their buying decisions, like a marionette that relies on its strings.

McCloskey readily admits that what Enologix does and has been doing since the company was started is to collect data, beginning in 1990, on 90-plus scoring wines by certain critics; and to track the progress of a winery’s grapes from the vineyard to the bottle in order to advise it what to do in order to capture the holy grail.

Additionally, according to the company’s Web site, Enologix “offers quality metrics, software tools and consulting which allow wineries to protect wine quality …”

Naturally, he scoffs at characterizations that writers, and even those in the industry, have put on him such as calling what he does, “The Grapes of Math,” or “something akin to reducing love to an algorithm.”

enologix logo.gif When pressed to admit that he indeed promulgates scores, McCloskey answers, “No, no. I’m just not against scores. That’s a big difference. I’m for the wine farm. I’m for running it as a business. I’m for being consumer-action oriented. Scores are just a temporary thing to be against in a consumer market.

“It’s one of many features in the market. … I’m just saying, that to take a stand and talk all day against scores, and not be active in your wine property, I think that’s the problem in the American wine industry.

“…I think to have an open culture, a performance culture, is what it’s all about. If scores are being used by the consumer, I like to compete. I like it when people win. I wish well on my neighbors.”

When charged by this reporter that because of the quest for high scores , McCloskey is somewhat complicit in the trend toward homogenization and a culture of big wine, he answers:

“It’s so untrue… (But) I tend to agree with you (about these big wines), but for different reasons. … Don’t throw it at me. I would throw it at other malaise within the industry. Those are the forces of mass production. When you look at true homogenizers, it’s the people who voted for cross-blending between AVAs. It’s those people who want to use de-alcoholization. It’s those people who want to use concentration. It’s those people who are using oak chips. I could go on. (It’s) the addition of technology equipment and additives, which are not coming strictly from grapes.”

But Steve Edmunds, the winemaker for Oakland, CA-based Edmunds St. John, disagrees. In a response to a New York Times article about McCloskey a couple of years ago, Edmunds wrote, “I think (his) approach to winemaking is appalling. Whether it works for the wineries in question or not, it's not about making better wine; it’s about selling more wine.”

The Fingerprints of 50,000 Plus Wines

By having at his disposal the fingerprints of more than 50,000 wines, McCloskey insists that his raison d’être is all about quality. And as if to leave on the backburner the issue of chasing the score, McCloskey seems obsessed now with promulgating the efficacy of wine quality.

McCloskey, an extremely bright and affable fellow of 57, actually seems to relish the controversies he’s stirred up. But he’s cautious about the agenda of some writers who approach him. Before he would agree to my turning on a tape recorder for this interview, he asks if we could rehearse the gist of the questions. However, the topics settled upon were varied, and the discussion flowed organically.

“Wading into controversies that already exist in the wine industry is where I would like to position the discussion of Enologix,” he begins, as if by caveat.

But it seems clear that McCloskey is intent on steering our meeting in the direction of quality and how to ensure systemic controls; and that Enologix has
Leo McCloskey in his office at Enologix.
the wherewithal to guide the debate that would be sure to ensue. Because, as he says many times during our time together, as if by a mantra, “there is a culture of cover-up” in the wine industry.

His lengthy explanation of the obfuscation goes thusly:
“What I have been presenting to the wine industry is a quantitative approach to appellations. What I can show you, consistently and routinely, is that data related to consumer purchases of wine, is related to quality in (a given) appellation.

“Let’s take Napa Valley. This is the walled city of wine in the new world. Napa is the only appellation that has turned into a brand. People on the streets of Paris know where Napa is. They do not know where Sonoma is or Lake County. Lake County could be in Minnesota, for a Frenchman.

“It’s the benchmark by which all the Cabernet Sauvignon within the U.S. is judged … because Robert Mondavi and the growers of Napa created the benchmark by which to judge wines in terms of bottle price, sales, appellation, and national critics’ scores.

“Within this brand, there is high and low quality,” he continued. “The highest quality certainly deserves a lot of recognition … (But) if you take the poor areas of Napa, they’re rejected as soundly as the poorest regions in Sonoma County. I would say the lowest quality regions of Napa have been covered up.

“The culture of the cover-up is the entrepreneur’s culture in America. American men have a kind of republican idea. They want unlimited freedom in business. They want to do what they want to do without governmental regulations; and without peer regulation. They are against having their peers out them for any low quality.”

Furthermore, “I believe that to strengthen Napa Valley is to point out where the poor quality Cabernet comes from in Napa. … So, I’m just proposing honesty.”

The Art and Science of the High Wine Scores

Toward that end, McCloskey is offering up Enologix, with its extensive data base, as the arbiter of rating quality in sub-regions of various AVAs. He wants to form an AOC-style system (the French call it appellation contrôlée), which would act as a cartel with its own ratings.

Enologix, which he said has 50 to 60 clients who each pay him an average of $20,000 a year to guide them toward higher scoring wines, is, incidentally, beginning to sell stocks seeking to raise capital, some of which no doubt would go toward its helping to form those AOCs.

“I’m for those appellations that have organized themselves around the benchmarks by which we judge all appellations. Namely the European
At the Enologix lab, Leo McCloskey assesses firsthand the quality of a Cabernet.
appellations (which are) more tightly legislated in respect to genetic material and

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Reader Comments... [7]

Wine Lover , Annoyed
The United States of America
Does anyone really care if Leo McCloskey is a looter and a nihilist? If a winery is willing to pay 20 grand so that he can destroy any bit of individuality that the winemaker had left, let him. Goldfarb points out that McCloskey speaks as if he has a disdain for winemakers; he has to if he routinely accepts money from failed winemakers and poor businessmen. The fact of the matter is, the people that hire Enologix don't trust themselves to be successful, which inherently prevents them from becoming so. That’s fine, people fail in business all the time. The danger is in allowing McCloskey to gain lobby support for his idea (turning Enologix into a government mandated institution, dictating what can and cannot be grown where and when, etc.); in which case he will become a demagogue, and nobody (especially someone with a PhD that doesn't understand the word terroir) should have the right to impose sanctions on the way wineries should run their businesses. He is obviously laying groundwork to make a power-play in the industry, and every winery, whether Parker likes you or not, has a responsibility to protect what is intrinsically yours: Your Freedom to Produce.

Michael Sarro , Grapemaster
St. Martin's Grapeschool, Shaker Heights, OH
As winemakers go, it would be better to ask why no monument in his honor had been built, rather than why one had been built. Big wines make big money, but it all comes from the small consumer, who must drink something that someone else admires.

Christophe Hedges , grower/sales
Hedges Family Estate, WA State
There is no such thing as a 100 point wine. Wine is subjective. To say there is a 100 point wine is to say a critic has a perfect palate. It is impossible to quantify subjectivity. Unfortunately, it's companies like Enologix that misguide wineries to think that scores are solutions to long term success in today's modern wine business.

Winemaker29 , Winemaker
Winery, Norcal
Leo McCloskey Part 2, correctly places quality before terroir. Winemakers who also manage wineries would agree with his assessments. I’ve read several of the comments above, and can only say that you are lucky to hear from someone who is not selling you their bottle of wine. McCloskey's a maverick, someone who is not afraid to speak the truth. Wine quality is more important than terroir to the average consumer.

winegoddess , wine crafter
privately owned winery, Sonoma/Napa, CA
A good winemaker is one who is experienced with years of knowledge in this craft. She is an artisan with sincere love of her work and a steadfast desire to make the finest quality wine for her customers. She's learned through the years that fine wine is not made by achieving target pH and titratable acidity nor by tannin and anthocyanin. It comes from knowing her vineyard sites well. Knowing what grows best where. Knowing how to achieve balance on the vine so that she can get the best possible fruit. She uses a combination of the aforementioned parameters in the juice stage and as wine to help guide her in her pursuit of wine complexity. This is not an easy task. It is complex. It only comes with years of trial and error. Sending in your samples to a firm that knows little about your vineyards is unimaginable to her. She knows that having this firm tell her what adjuncts to add or how to manipulate her wine is a soulless pursuit that only an inexperienced, unconfident winemaker would follow.

Winemaker29 , Winemaker
Winery, NorCal
Two things…
First, here’s a blog that has a brilliant discussion of McCloskey: http://www.pinotblogger.com
Second, what does a winemaker’s experience have to do with dismissing McCloskey's discussion? [see comment #5] No disrespect, really. If you have a lot of experience you simply love making wine. The consumer does not buy your winemaking lifestyle anymore.

winegoddess , winemaker
privately owned winery, Sonoma/Napa, CA
I certainly don't dismiss his discussion. However, whether or not we instill a new system of ranking wines the discussion is all in an attempt to have us believe that Enologix will get us on the map. It's self promotion and I guess that's a respectable business pursuit. However, no self respecting winemaker NEEDS Enologix, nor a new classification system. The consumer wants a story, a connection to the source which is why I adamantly believe that the consumer does, in fact, still buy into my winemaking lifestyle. They wouldn't drive out in droves from all corners of the world to visit me in Napa and taste my wines. My holdings of fine vineyards, pursuit of excellence and yes, my story, attract a clientele that drive my sales. I don't need the superfluity of classifications or ratings to stake my place in the wine industry.

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