THE PATIOIS of most wine experts consists of such phrases as "a bouquet redolent of truffles and violets," or "an opulent wine with flavors of roses and thyme"; not so for the well-known California enologist (wine chemist) Lisa Van De Water. As part of a recent consulting visit to wineries in the east, Van De Water came to Washington with what can only be described as a traveling medicine show, requiring its own special vocabulary. She presented a lecture on problems that can arise in making wine, followed by a tasting of nine terrible wines illustrating these problems.
The conversation at this tasting did not follow the normal pattern. Instead of debating whether Wine A resembled roses or truffles, the discussion centered on such delicate matters as wet dogs and dirty socks versus rotter parsnips, barnyards and stale corn chips.
Assuming your sensitivities permit you to read further, let us see how this began. In 1974, Van De Water was a research chemist performing experiments with chromosomes at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda. She decided that wine and the Napa Valley were more interesting than chromosomes in Bethesda, and packed off to become the research enologist for the Robert Mondavi Winery.
While at Mondavi, she saw a need for a private wine laboratory to provide consulting services and chemical analyses for wineries that did not have their own staffs of chemists or large laboratories. The idea took hold, and Van De Water founded, and is president of, The Wine Lab in St. Helena, Calif., an organization which she describes as providing "hand holding servies." By now her clientele includes over 300 commercial wineries in 17 states. In addition, The Wine Lab gives classes on such subjects as wine analysis, fermentation, spoilage and cellar procedures.
Upon learning of Van De Water's recent visit, a group of local wine lovers arranged for her to present a lecture and tasting. After her lecture on such subjects as oxidation, metal contamination and acetic spoilage, Van De Water presented nine wines illustrating the problems she had discussed. While, as indicated above, the tasting was not exactly a connoisseur's delight, it was uniquely informative. The group learned to distinguish between dirty socks -- which indicates the presence of an undesirable malolactic bacterium -- and the "horsey" aroma that can come from a spoilage yeast called Dekkera.
Solutions to these problems were also discussed. In considering what to do about vegetable smell, which can result from an excess of hydrogen sulphide in the wine, one student suggested that the winemaker simply add hollandaise sauce. Van de Water's suggestions, if less imaginative, were more helpful.
While this tasting left the group with somewhat palates, it left them no less ready for good wine. There is nothing like wet dogs and dirty socks to make you appreciate violets and truffles.