Wines Above Replacement: Technical Details and Wine Labelling

There’s a reason for the phrase “inside baseball.”  Even though millions watch the sport, there is a very small number of people who make decisions and scout players.  Those inside baseball rely heavily on statistical analysis and financial modeling.  This makes sense, as their livelihood is directly related to the ability to put the most cost-effective winning team on the field, day-after-day, year-after-year.  While intuition still plays a role, it is no longer the primary tool in signing or trading for a player, and will likely never be again.

For people in the stands, this shift to Sabermetrics, as baseball data analysis is known, has been polarizing.  Some hardcore baseball fans have embraced the movement, happily chirping about WAR (Wins Above Replacement), BABIP (Batting Average for Balls In Play), and OPS (On-base Plus Slugging).  Others find the casual use of these statistics off-putting, feeling that the beauty of the game is derived from unquantifiable parameters like team chemistry and grit.

Wine has gone through a similar pivot.  For much of history, wine’s creation had been shrouded, almost mystical.  Production methods, developed through centuries of trial and error, were passed down through families, with each new generation adding their own small wrinkle.  It wasn’t until 1866, with Louis Pasteur’s Studies on Wine, that humanity got its first glimpse into the mechanism of fermentation -- yeast.  Since then, there has been an explosion in the understanding of how wine is created and the ways in which people can manipulate the process to obtain predictable results.  

The wine industry has also been wrestling with how to strike a balance between maintaining the romance of wine while providing useful information that some consumers want to know.  For this reason, some wines are now providing their own statistics, such as brix (sugar levels) at harvest, total acidity, volatile acidity, total SO2, percentage of malolactic fermentation, and even the yeast strains employed to craft the wine.  And for wineries that don’t provide numbers, there is the ubiquitous, and often incomprehensible, tasting note; does “hints of tar, smoked blackberry, and a note of serenity” sound familiar?

Aesthetic beauty is something that is easy to identify but difficult to define.  Swinging a stick to hit a ball, smashing grapes and allowing them to spoil; when done poorly, they are piteous things.  However, when done well, both take on a quality that is more than the sum of its parts.  The use of descriptors, statistics and chemical analysis are all, in their way, attempts to quantify, and even predict, that ineffable characteristic.  But, for all their utility, the numbers don’t replace the spine-tingling when the crack of a bat drew a roar from the crowd, or the whiff of a wine that conjures up the hillsides of Italy.  These are special things, and in a world saturated with data, experiences such as these even more alluring, precisely because they can’t be captured by numbers.