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Now in its third year, North Carolina’s Quality Assurance Program — an independent and confidential diagnosis and analysis of faults in N.C. wines — has begun issuing its stamps of approval to those wines passing muster.

“This is something we’ve needed to do in this state,” RayLen Vineyards winemaker Steve Shepard told this year’s attendees at the N.C. Winegrower’s Conference in Winston-Salem. He noted that other states and countries long ago adopted wine bottle stickers or stamps that assure consumers of quality.

RayLen Vineyards near Mocksville is the first North Carolina winery to be awarded QAP bottle stickers.

North Carolina’s quality-assurance initiative focuses on lowering common faults in wine — volatile acidity, excessive sulfur dioxide, oxidation for example — to legal and acceptable limits.

Trained evaluators meet several times a year to assess bottled wines submitted for a blind tasting. If that sensory panel agrees the wine meets standards — detected faults are below thresholds — it “passes,” eligible for the black QAP sticker.

If the panel fails it, it is sent to Appalachian State University for lab analysis. If it passes there, it is eligible for a stamp. If it fails, feedback is provided to the winery submitting the wine.

But that same wine can still be sold on retail shelves without the sticker.

The program is positioned as professional development for winemakers, the end-game being better wines and enhanced reputation for the state wine industry.

In recent years, some established wineries have privately groused that too many self-taught newcomers are introducing flawed wines, denigrating the industry’s reputation. At the same time, some of those new wineries have expressed a distrust with sensory panels dominated by old guard wineries.

The good news at this year’s wine conference? Ninety-five percent of the wines submitted have passed muster.

The bad news? Only 30 North Carolina wineries have participated in the program. Currently, there are more than 180 wineries statewide.

More wineries should participate, Shepard said.

And therein came the push-back at this year’s conference.

Several attendees complained that assessing wine already in bottle is too late to help, that evaluating bottled wine provides no opportunity to mitigate flaws.

Seth Cohen, director of the fermentation sciences program at ASU, said that assessing wine samples in progress was logistically challenging given tight production cycles. He also noted that winemakers routinely stagger bottling cycles and manipulate wines throughout the fermenting and aging process. Assessing a moving target, he argued, was dicey.

I’m seated at this conference with a sensory panel judge and several representatives from a large N.C. winery.

Our table concludes: There is merit to both arguments.

Still, it resides now on those sitting on the sidelines to knowing what they do not yet know, to educating themselves — even if after the fact — and learning enough to craft better wine in the future.

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At the recent wine conference, Ian Taplin — Wake Forest University professor of sociology, management and international studies — updated us on wine consumer trends in the United States:

  • 57 percent of U.S. wine drinkers are female.
  • 46.3 percent of wine consumed in the U.S. is red wine.
  • 75 percent of wine sold in the U.S. is $9 and under a bottle.
  • Washington, D.C., has the highest per-capita wine consumption in the U.S., and this provides immeasurable support to the Virginia wine industry.
  • Marketers chase millennials they may never catch because millennials generally substitute craft beer and spirits for wine. Boomers still dominate wine sales.
  • Wine sales are flat in U.S. restaurants and bars; Prosecco and Sauvignon Blanc are strong among restaurant sales.
  • The hottest selling wines at retail in the U.S.? Soft, fruit-forward, off-dry red blends under $12 a bottle.
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Ed Williams is Marketing Director for Alamance Community College. Email news or suggestions to williamsonwine@gmail.com.

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