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Ole Miss Pharmacy Professor Debunks Wine Labels

Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from author John Hailman’s book ‘The Search for Good Wine’ which will be available for purchase October 2014 from the University of Mississippi Press. This particular chapter was written on August 6, 1989.

Do you like wine labels? Hate wine labels? Sometimes I feel both ways at the same time, loving the pictures but hating the words. Beside a stunning picture of a clipper ship sailing the seas, you find chemical jargon like “contains sodium metabisulfite,” or “total acid 3.43 percent.” Who really wants to know that? Other labels tell you wines are dry when they are really sweet. Is there a cure for such labeling practices? Maybe.
dvine_wine_1John Juergens, a wine lover who is also a pharmacy professor at the University of Mississippi, has applied for a patent on labeling scheme called VinTest (it wouldn’t be wine if it didn’t have a little French) that might make things easier. VinTest labels have a small, simple bar graph with four 10-point scales that look like a row of thermometers. They show even wine’s sweetness, acidity, astringency and body, thus giving an objective, chemically verifiable picture of what’s really in the bottle. It took 10 years of study and consumer research to convince Juergens that these four basic elements are what cause most people to like or dislike wines.
Process of Elimination
Unfortunately, his system has to omit aroma, bouquet, “nose”, or whatever else makes you choose to call the smell of wines, the most subtle of their evaluation. This makes VinTest more of an “El-li-mi-nate the negative” exercise than an end-all wine-chooser. With VinTest, you find out what you dislike. Then you seek out the wines you like most by traditional trial-and-error, but within the much smaller group of wines you like in a general way.
My favorite scale, because it gives the most new information is the one for astringency. Called tannin by wine lovers and complex polyphenols by chemists, astringency is experienced as the “pucker factor” by anyone tasting a wine that is too tannic for them. Like the other three scales, astringency goes from zero to 10 and looks like a thermometer. A “perfect” 10 may be well-night undrinkable. In this case a zero, shown on the scale California-like as “mellow”, may be preferable.
Most people, it is said, actually like sweet wines labeled “dry”. Juergens’ scale eliminates that illusion by telling them how much sugar the wine really has, measured from zero to 10.
Acids, which produce tartness but are often confused with tannin (bitterness), are also measured simply, without any excruciating explanation of pH, from zero (3.8 pH) to 10 (3.0 pH) on the simple bar graph.
In Pursuit of a Good Body
Most complex and disputed of the wine characteristics is the elusive term “body”, which refers to the weight or substance as felt rather than tasted. It is produced by the interaction of sugars, tannins, and alcohol. With wines like Chablis (light) or Cabernet (heavy) you can often judge body just by holding the wine in your mouth. But body is often deceptive, often causing the French to refer to it in terms of female anatomy. They say wines with heavy bodies hav enot just “legs” but “thighs”, referring to the breadth of the streams of wine that run down inside a glass when you slosh wine around. Really.
Old-time critics use words like “elegant” for light bodies and “beefy” for heavy ones. With the new system, you know scientifically the body weight of yoru potential evening’s partner from the label alone. Detractors say chemical tests will remove the poetry from wine and are a Puritan plot to make wine hygienic and dull. Is that really true? No.
There is just too much romance and whimsy in wine to ever remove it all. This was illustrated last month in one of those New Yorker wine cartoons which, like Greek philosophers, eventually explain all of life if you study them enough. In this cartoon, a yuppie offers his friends “a really gifted young Zinfandel”. If you want to know more about your Zinfandels than whether they’re “gifted”, you’ll have to contact VinTest’s inventor.
JOHN-HAILMAN-PHOTO-2-150x150John Hailman of Oxford is a regular contributor to HottyToddy.com on two subjects: Law and Wine. Now retired from both his “day job” as a federal prosecutor in Oxford after 33 years and his “night job” of 25 years as a nationally syndicated daily columnist in more than 100 daily papers on wine, food and travel for Gannett News Service and the Washington Post, Hailman will cover both topics under the titles of The Legal Eagle and Wine Tips of the Week. HottyToddy.com will also run periodic excerpts from Hailman’s upcoming book of humorous legal stories, From Midnight to Guntown: True Crime Stories From A Federal Prosecutor in Mississippi. Hailman now teaches Federal Trial Practice and Law and Literature at the University of Mississippi.

'The Search for Good Wine' by John Hailman will be available October 2014 /Copyright 2014, University of Mississippi Press
‘The Search for Good Wine’ by John Hailman will be available October 2014 /Copyright 2014, University of Mississippi Press

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