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In this episode of “Wine 101,” VinePair tastings director Keith Beavers discusses oenology — the science and study of wine — with Scott Kozel, vice president of winemaking at E & J Gallo. Beavers and Kozel discuss the differences between oenology and winemaking, and explain the role an oenologist plays in wine production.
In addition, Kozel explains the distinct difference between how the Old and New World define “oenologist,” while Beavers gives a brief overview of the pioneering winemakers and oenologists in the ‘90s, such as Helen Turley, Mia Klein, and Celia Welch.
Tune in to learn more about oenology.
Or Check Out the Conversation Here
Keith Beavers: My name is Keith Beavers, and I’m going to say “Streets” is my favorite Doja Cat song.
What’s going on, wine lovers? Welcome to Episode 22 of VinePair’s “Wine 101” podcast, Season 2. My name is Keith Beavers. I am the tastings director of VinePair. How are you? Today, we’re going to talk about this word called oenology. It looks weird, but it’s not really that weird. It’s all about science, something you may not know about, but it’s fun. It’s science. Let’s get into it.
Wine lovers, I love wine science, as you probably know. History, science, wine. It’s my jam. The thing is, I’ve never made wine. I’ve never gotten my hands dirty. OK, I clipped a couple of grapes in England once, but I’ve never been out there and done the work. Once I was out in Long Island, I did some work on a vineyard, but I really didn’t do anything. I never had the responsibility of creating a wine. I’m fascinated with science, and I understand it in my own capacity so that I can tell you guys about it in a general manner. I try to get as detailed as I can, and the upcoming episodes are going to be really fun because it’s really about science. We have sulfites and wine flaws and all this stuff, but when it comes to the word oenology, there’s really not a lot to read about oenology. It’s a word. It has a definition, and then it stops there.
Oenology is the study of wine. It comes from the word oívos, which is Greek for wine. When the word is written down for the public, in an article or something, it has two different spellings, and it’s a little bit confusing. Oenology is spelled o-e-n-o-l-o-g-y, but it’s also spelled enology without the initial o. It’s a little bit confusing and when you’re reading about wine and you read the word oenology, it almost interchanges itself.
I had an opportunity to get on the phone with an actual oenologist, Scott Kozel. He’s the vice president of winemaking at E & J Gallo. He oversees a ton of winemaking. We talked about what oenology is, why the spelling is different, and its distinctions between the New World and the Old World. It was an awesome conversation, and I don’t think I can convey what he said better than the way he said it so I’m going to put the interview here. I edited it down. I want to put it here for this episode. This is a raw interview in that I was not prepared to be putting this in this episode, but what he said was so cool, I figured I had to do it. You might hear some references to names or wine stuff that’s a little bit out of context, but just know that I’ll be approaching those names and things in future episodes. Here’s the interview, and thank you so much, Scott, for taking the time to talk to me about this stuff. It’s awesome.
(Start of Interview)
K: I guess what I’m trying to understand is what goes into being an oenologist? Because, in the wine world, we obsess over you guys. We are the people that buy wine. We are the ones that go and put them on the wine list. We are the ones that go to your website and see who the oenologist is for this one. We love that, but if I tell somebody, “Oh, man, Giacomo Tachis” over dinner they would ask, who the hell are you talking about? They don’t know who Giacomo Tachis is. Anyways, I just want to give you the floor. Is it a school thing? Is it not a school thing? Can you do it without being in school? Do you mind riffing on this for me?
S: Yeah, so I got a million things that went through my head right now, so I’ll see if I can get it in a sensible order.
K: This is recorded, so go for it, man. I can piece it together.
S: OK, beautiful. First, Europe employs the terminology differently than the United States does and differently than Australia. It depends on where I’m standing, which damn continent I’m on. Now, I will talk about roles first, and then maybe we’ll step into how I think about oenology versus oenologist because I view them differently. An oenologist in the New World is really almost an entry-level position. You might be doing some lab work, you’re doing a lot of the science stuff behind it. You’re measuring SO2s, you’re measuring pH, and maybe you’re making some decisions on what to do in the cellar. Possibly, you’re directing the cellar but not making a lot of decisions. An oenologist is really an entry-level role in the New World, whereas a winemaker is a much more expansive role in the New World where you’re certainly employing the pieces of work the oenologist used to do. By the way, you’re running the cellar now. You’re running the bottling line often, you’re probably on the road as a PR spokesperson and meeting with sales teams and meeting with marketers. You could also be the marketer. You’re also out in the vineyard doing the viticultural stuff. You probably take care of the supply chain, making sure the bottles are ordered and the corks are coming. A winemaker has a much more expansive role than an oenologist here in the United States.
K: Wow, you’re blowing my mind here. OK, keep going.
S: That’s right. Oh, this took me years to figure out, talking to friends in Europe and they would say, “Our oenologist has been here for 40 years.” Forty years, and this dude hasn’t had a promotion?! They actually think about it the other way. They believe the oenologist is the pinnacle and they do all these things. We use the words 180 degrees differently. I think the term is very confusing if you think about it globally, so don’t help anybody at all at that point. Now, oenology. I like the classic definition: the science and the study of wine. Separate from grapes because even if you look at the wine schools around the globe, they’re usually viticulture, grape study, and an oenology department. This is to study grapes and wine, and they treat them somewhat separately. They’re different courses and different sets of professors. Most students, like myself 20-plus years ago, take courses in each of those fields but you have an emphasis. Mine was more on the oenology side, and this is why I love oenology. This is my second career. I pursued a career as a mechanical engineer, which I did for a decade. Then, I quit my job and moved my family across state lines, sold the house, and went back to school to study oenology. It’s really a synthesis of other basic sciences: biology, chemistry, microbiology, and sensory science.
K: Sensory science? I don’t know much about it, but I love it.
S: Exactly. We all do because you get the taste and you get to make the choices and all that stuff.
K: Are those perception thresholds and stuff like that?
S: Yeah, exactly. That’s the sensory science piece of it that one might learn in a formal education here in the States, Australia, or in Europe as well. You’re learning how these all fit together, learning how choices you make with respect to biology and chemistry cascade into or affect the sensory experience one might have later. That’s why I like oenology because it is the study of all these things at once, how they interact, how chemistry affects the use of biology, and how that, in turn, affects the sensory aspects of the consumer’s experience many years later. It’s really fascinating stuff, the oenology piece of it. I’m trying to go back here a little bit to the oenologist versus winemaker. I think here in the States, the study of oenology is really understanding the choices that are in front of you and having an opinion on them. For example, SO2. I could add SO2 to this, or I could not add SO2 and maybe add this instead. I think winemaking here in the States and the rest of the world is making those choices and understanding the ramifications that you’re now making. With oenology, it’s like look, I’m not going to tell you what to do but the winemaker is now making that choice because the winemaker doesn’t get a billion options to bottle. He gets one. It’s one wine at the end of the day or the end of the month. It’s a summation of all those choices that the winemaker, he or she, has made over the last several years with respect to that wine. I draw the distinction a little bit differently with oenology and oenologist understanding the choices that winemakers understand, but also now making them and having to live with those decisions.
K: It’s like “Sir, Ma’am, these are the results of the data that we have.” Then, they talk to the winemaker. The winemaker says, “OK, thank you for that data. I will now take it and apply it to the future.”
S: That’s exactly right. One of the other winemakers I work with — and you summed it up almost exactly that way — said, “Look, the job of the winemakers is to generate all the data. It’s to assemble all the data, understand it, and make a choice at the end of the day because we’re only going to do one thing. We’re not going to do 50 things. It’s act now or act later.
K: Dude, my brain hurts, but it’s awesome. This is incredible. I love this stuff. This is great. Can I make a distinction here then? That’s the New World, and that sounds like a collaborative effort between a bunch of people doing really cool stuff. You have the vineyard manager, you have a winemaker, and you have an oenologist. I’m sure the lines blur sometimes, but there’s that nice collaboration between these three skills that can help create something beautiful. Do you know how different it is in Europe or is this the way they do it?
S: I think it’s very similar, but they’re simply using different titles for the role. What we in the United States call a winemaker, in Europe, they call it an oenologist. That’s all. They have the exact same set of activities, meaning the oenologist in the more traditional winemaking countries is going to go to the vineyard and talk to the grape grower. Then, the oenologist is going to make those choices that are made here in the States by a winemaker. It’s almost a reversal of title and activity.
K: Wow. When you look at the history of California, you have Helen Turley, Mia Klein, Celia Welch, and Thomas Rivers Brown, who has been blowing up. Also, Heidi Peterson Barrett. They did some serious work back in the ‘90s to usher in a trend. Their skills helped usher in a trend, but what they were doing is they weren’t trying. I don’t know that they were trying to create or maintain a trend, but they had ideas which then became trends.
S: Yes, I think it’s more appropriately stated in that last piece, right? I think their approach was their approach, and it became a trend. Their approach was a really ripe grape carrying through to higher-alcohol wine with significant extraction and tremendous color. Really, really showy right from the get-go. I think that was a new concept 30 years ago, and critics embraced it. Bob Parker really started to embrace it and thought it was really cool. He gives them good scores to drive the sales. Now, everyone else wanted to sell like they were selling volume and price-wise, so they evolved their style to match that a little bit more closely.
K: Right, that’s why Screaming Eagle came on top in the beginning. OK, then there’s this idea of the traveling winemaker, or as the Europeans would say, the traveling oenologist. This list of awesome people back in the ‘90s that were doing the good work in California, are they oenologists or winemakers?
S: I think here in the States we would call them winemakers for sure because they are involved right there at the vineyard identifying the plant, trellising systems, and management throughout the season as well. They’re involved in all those things, as I think most winemakers here in the United States are. I guess that is a fairly common job description, if you will. Those are the activities I think a winemaker would be expected to do here in the United States.
K: What a fun little conundrum we have here. You have Jancis Robinson writing in the “Oxford Wine Companion” about oenologists. Defining oenology, defining what it oenologists is on the level of what the European model believes. Here I am, an American in the New World, reading about it and I have to make that distinction now. Now I know the distinction that has to be made between the two. It’s not wrong or right. It’s just different, and that’s how we understand it.
S: Yep, exactly. Whether you’re sitting in as a Bordeaux oenologist or sitting in as the winemaker, the things you’re going to do are pretty much the same thing. You are out in the vineyard this time of the year, trying to see the plant’s status and leaf pulling at an appropriate stage. Are we ready for a heat wave this weekend? Going to take a last look before the heat. Come back next week and see what impact it had on a lot. Their activity today is almost identical.
K: Scott, have we come back to “it starts in the vineyard?” Have we come back to Mother Nature?
S: Oh, unquestionably.
K: We’ve come full circle to Mother Nature here, I think.
S: Oh, yeah. No question.
K: I love that you guys are able to harness this through science. I think it’s phenomenal, but people are making wines in different ways and different styles. There’s a bunch of stuff now as if you would like an Époisses, which is very stinky cheese, or maybe you like a wine that has a bunch of Brettanomyces in it or a wine with volatile acidity and that’s your jam. You don’t really want the fruit, you want the savory. I just find it interesting that in that way, as a scientist and a chemist, you are actually saying things like, “I know the Brettanomyces is going to eat the fruit after the Saccharomyces die, and I’m cool with that.” You’re making that decision, and that’s insane.
S: That’s exactly right. Or just, “I’m going to let this ride, and not worry too much about it. I’m going to be aware of it, but I’m just going to let it ride.” I’m going to, for example, add a little more sulfur, I’m not going to sanitize barrels as frequently as I would otherwise. I’m going o let my pH be a little bit higher. If you have those things together, your probability of getting Brettanomyces has gone up. I know those things, and I’m cool with it.
K: So you still have to do work.
S: Unfortunately, we still gotta do some work beyond just tasting.
K: Scott, you blew my mind, man. I really appreciate you taking the time. This is great. I do these podcasts, and I’m the guy talking all the time. I may just publish this interview, man. I may just put this out. This is a part of wine that’s always been not mysterious to me, but never fully understood. I understand it fully now.
S: That is great!
K: I just don’t know that I can explain it as well as you can. Would it be OK if I put you on the episode?
S: No problem at all.
(End of Interview)
K: OK, that’s awesome.
Do you see what I’m saying? He wraps it all up nice with a little bow on it, so we all understand what oenology is. Just so you guys know, Giacomo Tachis was the oenologist in Tuscany responsible for pretty much ushering in the Super Tuscan movement. Helen Turley is a very famous winemaker, and everyone that I listed is also very famous. One day, I will go over all that with you guys. You’ll notice we dipped into a little bit of a Brettanomyces-sulfites thing there. I’ll be talking about that as well. Also, Agoston Haraszthy and Charles Krug are very important players in the history of California wine and the wine in America in general, so at some point we’ll talk about all that.
But this episode was about oenology, and I hope you got from it what I got from it, which is, “I get it.” Thank you, thank you, thank you, Scott Kozel, vice president of winemaking at Gallo. Thank you.
@VinePairKeith is my Insta. Rate and review this podcast wherever you get your podcast from. It really helps get the word out there. And now for some totally awesome credits.
“Wine 101” was produced, recorded, and edited by yours truly, Keith Beavers, at the VinePair headquarters in New York City. I want to give a big ol’ shout-out to co-founders Adam Teeter and Josh Malin for creating VinePair. And I mean, a big shout-out to Danielle Grinberg, the art director of VinePair, for creating the most awesome logo for this podcast. Also, Darbi Cicci for the theme song. Listen to this. And I want to thank the entire VinePair staff for helping me learn something new every day. See you next week.
Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.