In an operations center near the Sonoma County Airport, highly sensitive liquids are handled in a meticulous process that prevents their contamination.
Exacting scientific standards require the most unpolluted environment possible: a semiconductor clean room, devoid of oxygen, into which no human can enter. Materials arriving in and exiting the clean room do so through airlocks that preserve the zero-oxygen environment. The liquid is automatically measured and dispersed — gently and accurately, over and over — by some of the world’s smallest peristaltic pumps.
And all of this is done, essentially, to decant a bottle of wine. Or, rather, hundreds of thousands of them.
Welcome to the manufacturing pipeline of TastingRoom Inc., the innovators behind TastingRoom.com, which recently began shipping out to California consumers its taste-sized sample kits of wine from vineyards like Trefethen, Patz & Hall, Gundlach Bundschu, Talley, DeLoach and Grgich Hills.
The high-tech effort, which the company calls T.A.S.T.E. Technology for total anaerobic sample transfer environment, allows a regular-sized bottle of wine to be pared down into 15 mini bottles without losing any flavor or quality to pesky, character-changing oxygen.
When the samples arrive at your doorstep — and in your favorite wine glass — the taste should be identical to the samples being poured at the winery’s official tasting room or off retail shelves, said TastingRoom founder and CEO Tim Bucher.
“It’s going to be the exact taste and aroma of the actual product you can buy,” he said.
Each winery’s sampler includes four to six mini-sized (50 mL) bottled varietals that arrive with tasting and pairing notes, information about the vineyard and discount offers for ordering full-sized bottles on the website. (The kits start at $10 for a four-pack sampler.)
Bucher is a Silicon Valley tech guy who never lost touch with his roots; He grew up on a farm in Healdsburg and got an early start in viticulture. Bucher owns a small winery called Trattore and Dry Creek Olive Company, which produces extra virgin olive oil.
The idea of an online tasting marketplace was something Bucher first considered when he noticed that the olive company’s physical tasting room was driving sales, even in a sour economy. He wondered, “How can I scale my tasting rooms intergalactically? … How can I create an online service that provides some portion of that tasting-room experience?”
Things got more complicated when he decided to bring his wines into the mix. (It’s one thing to bottle sample sizes of the more resilient olive oil, but another task entirely to break down bottles of wine into smaller portions without exposing the liquid to air.)
Bucher began to consult experts and chemists in the field. “At first they were like, ‘What you’re trying to do is kind of crazy,’” he said. “But this is my fifth start-up company, so I’m used to … doubt and skepticism. That’s one of the beauties of being an entrepreneur — trying to solve these problems.”
Once Bucher had developed and tested a method that would accommodate high-volume, commercial production, he had a revelation: “I had this ‘a-ha’ moment. … Why just do this for my own winery and my own olive company? … Why not do it for the whole industry?”
Indeed, Bucher said he believes the industry may stand to gain as much as consumers do from the TastingRoom technology.
“Wineries spend billions of dollars each year providing samples of their products,” he said, and TastingRoom’s kits are a way for winemakers to efficiently distribute samples. One kit costs less than one full-sized bottle of wine.
“Our (initial) vision was to reach the consumer, but it’s really evolved so that we have two parts of our business,” he said.
Too, the company’s quality-control measures hold valuable information that is shared with wineries. In Bucher’s in-house laboratory, one sample pulled from every bottle is analyzed on a molecular level to ensure the samples are a true representation of the original bottled wine.
“Every single bottle that we open is tested,” Bucher said, “and we give that data back to the winery. … We really can help wineries monitor the quality of their wines.”
FOR MY OWN IN-HOUSE EXPERIMENT with the TastingRoom ritual, I received a sampler kit of six reds and whites from Grgich Hills Estate in Rutherford.
I first took some time to develop a tactical approach, because, if there’s anywhere I’m most comfortable drinking wine, it’s in my own home; I didn’t want the taste-testing factor to get lost in the mix of laid-back sipping.
Using the suggestions that arrive with the kit, I worked up a food-pairing menu focused around the whites: ahi pok and Point Reyes Original Blue cheese to complement the 2007 chardonnay; a modified Israeli salad with avocado and goat cheese served alongside baked mahi mahi on a bed of arugula for the 2008 fume blanc; and a fruit tart for the 2008 Violetta dessert wine.
(Such rigorous application of the scientific method is comparable in measure to the time I analyzed the effects of centrifugal force on plant growth for the middle-school science fair; very nuanced and difficult, obviously.)
Each sample-sized bottles afforded my dinner partner and I two to three adequate swallows apiece; One for getting acquainted, the following for teasing the palate with different flavor combinations.
The chardonnay is an acidic stunner, marked by the juicy bite of tropical fruits. The ahi poke enhanced those dimensions and brought out the wine’s earthiness, where the creamy blue cheese pulled a sweetness and stronger velvety finish from its depths.
At first blush, the fum blanc is full of citrus — especially in its fine, herbal lemon-blossom aroma — and it envelopes and spreads in the mouth, taste buds watering throughout its lengthy evolution. This was a great match for the veggies in our spread; the arugula and Israeli salad enhanced the minerality for a striking balance.
Last up in the tour of Grgich Hills whites was the dessert wine, which we tasted with the fruit tart and both the goat and blue cheeses. The 2008 Violetta has a thick character, honey-like, and a flavor that sticks around as syrupy peaches out of a can do. I loved this wine, in all its incarnations. With the pungent blue cheese, it proffered a divine sweet-and-salty harmony.
With the fruit tart, though, it reached its pinnacle; The fresh, glazed kiwi, strawberry and raspberry extracted Violetta’s peachy heart — tasting, all meshed together, like the ideal summer salad in a fantasyland where the best fruits never go out of season.
Each TastingRoom bottle — scaled-down glass containers that even include a replica of the full-sized label — comes with a best-enjoyed-by date that varies depending on the varietal.
“The wine isn’t bad in three to six months,” Bucher said. “It just means the wine is going to start an aging process, diverging from the mother bottle that it came from.”
On the horizon, Bucher said customers can expect to see more wineries and new interactive features rolled out on the website every couple of months.
“Our No. 1 goal is to help consumers find great wines and not have to depend on a numerical rating from an individual whose palate might be drastically different from theirs,” he said, comparing the service to other online, try-before-you-commit vendors like Netflix or iTunes.
“I could sit and describe a song to you all day long, but you’re not going to emotionally connect to that song unless you hear it,” Bucher said. “… That kind of sensory product — where you try it before you decide if you like it — is very applicable to the wine industry.”
For more information, visit tastingroom.com
Nose Diving is a San Gabriel Valley Newspaper Group features column, in which a novice wine writer fumbles toward grace.
(Photos courtesy TastingRoom.com and staff photos)