I received this letter recently from Fran in Phoenix.

“In the context of tools that wine makers can use these days, Enologix has gotten a lot of press. I’d love to hear your take on what he’s doing, and how that differs from Vinovation (which I ask just to enhance my own understanding). Is he a competitor? A different universe?”

Permit me a heavy sigh. I guess I understand why people connect us with Enologix, but it’s another universe. I suppose people’s connection is that both of our activities somehow evoke the same buzz words: “science,” “technology,” and “weird.” But that’s where the similarity ends.

Leo McCloskey has succeeded brilliantly in attacking directly the fundamental requirement of corporate enology: to reverse engineer Spectator scores. If I were Capitol Records, I’d want to computer generate Bonnie Raitt, or at least discern the drivers that make her who she is, so I could spot the next one and maybe create one I own. This is what Leo coaches. He has over 70,000 wines in his database, so even though the theoretical tail isn’t supposed to wag the dog, the sheer size of his history probably gives some useful predictive power.

The UC Davis folks hate his guts and call him a charlatan, and I think this is grossly unfair. They dabble less skillfully and with less commercial success in the same forbidden areas, and comport themselves like they own the high ground. But the corporate cash jockeys have mostly voted with their dollars in Leo’s direction.

I think of Leo’s best use as a way for high level winery officers who can’t control matters at the level of technique to look in on their winemakers and see if they are passing the digital sniff test. Of course, another way would be to taste their wines…

What Leo does is utterly unrelated to our approach. We are just coaches of technique, like a voice coach, a trainer at the gym or a cooking coach for a top chef. We don’t believe in generalities: technique needs to be tailored to the needs of the practitioner and the materials available.

Leo’s approach says you need certain raw materials to make great wine. We agree, and if the winery is way off base in this area, Leo can help. But 10,000 bricks do not constitute a house. We control the architecture. Leo can tell whether the car is on the pavement; we coach driving technique. Leo doesn’t actually provide any tools at all, just computer generated theories.

Another difference between us and Leo is that while we endeavor to be as open as possible about everything we do and believe, Leo’s system is rooted in a secret black box approach. That’s his choice, and it doesn’t make him a quack. It’s hard to validate his analyses, but it’s also hard to steal his system. In our case, we’re ties up in suing an unscrupulous infringer, VA Filtration, because of our openness. But I’m not sorry to be able to speak freely about what we do.

Our two companies don’t compete in any way. Leo doesn’t offer any services or products. We don’t score wines. The things he measures aren’t affected by the things we do. He counts bricks. We build houses.

PS It is seldom mentioned that before Leo went for the black box approach, he published the definitive article in the Journal of the American Society for Enology and Viticulture (1977, maybe?) a simple how-to protocol on an enzymatic method for measuring malic acid quantitatively in wine, and moreover showed how to do it with a cheap visible light spectrophotometer, saving wineries half the cost to implement. Following malolactic fermentation with real numbers became a huge step forward for winemakers, and few appreciate Leo’s generous gift.