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Drinking Out Loud

You Say, “Tomato” …

And others say, “tasteless”
Photo by: Jon Moe
Matt Kramer asks if we're training a generation to equate "more" with "better."

Matt Kramer
Posted: February 7, 2017

It's no news that American agribusiness, with the enthusiastic support of university-based agricultural scientists, pretty much destroyed the American tomato. But now at least one horticultural scientist and his colleagues say redemption is at hand.

Big Food wanted a tomato that could be shipped and stocked in supermarkets without damage. Big Ag scientists delivered. Over decades, plant geneticists and horticulturists helped perfect a tomato so impervious to damage that it could be dropped from a height of 6 feet without its skin breaking (the infamous Walter tomato).

The modern American tomato was deemed perfect. Except for one thing: It was tasteless. Yet the tomato industry, and the university scientists who served it, issued a stream of denials that there was anything wrong with the commercial American tomato.

The late Charles Rick (1915–2002), a plant geneticist at the University of California, Davis, who was the undisputed father of tomato genetics, once declared, "I don't think it's right to attribute poor market quality to breeding. That's a bunch of nonsense."

Yet now, in a recent issue of Science magazine, Harry Klee, a horticultural scientist at the University of Florida and the lead author of a study on tomato flavor, effectively begs to differ. The study flatly states, "Modern commercial tomato varieties are substantially less flavorful than heirloom varieties."

"To understand and ultimately correct this deficiency," say the authors of the study, "we quantified flavor-associated chemicals in 398 modern, heirloom, and wild accessions. … We found that modern commercial varieties contain significantly lower amounts of many of these important flavor chemicals than older varieties."

In an article reporting on the study in The New York Times, professor Klee says, "Think of the tomato flavor as a symphony with lots of notes. Over the last 50 years, they’ve removed one instrument at a time."

Some 26 genes are critical to producing flavorful volatiles, according to the study. The problem? Modern tomato varieties have versions of these genes that produce smaller amounts of the volatiles than heirloom varieties.

The answer? Create a hybrid tomato (by traditional crossbreeding rather than genetic engineering) that restores full-fledged genes that create flavor. “Now we know exactly what needs to be done to make it right. We just have to turn the crank,” says professor Klee.

Talk about coming full circle.

Surely you know where I'm going with this. The similarities between tomatoes (which is a fruit, after all) and wine grapes are considerable. With both tomatoes and fine-wine grapes it's a matter of nuance, of trace elements, of an interplay of sometimes infinitesimal yet vital compounds.

True, tomatoes have seen vastly more genetic manipulation than grapes. Still, there's been plenty of cross-breeding with wine grapes over the past century, never mind clonal selection within traditional grape varieties.

Yet would anyone submit that any of the many wine-grape hybrids, such as Scheurebe, Ruby Cabernet, Flora, Baco Noir, Maréchal Foch, Rubired or Seyval, to name just a few, are superior to heirloom grapes? They serve, especially in extreme growing conditions. But they fail to conquer.

With the advent of clonal selections in fine-wine grapes, such as the now-widespread Dijon clones of Pinot Noir named after the Burgundy-based research program that selected and endorsed specific strains, we're now seeing, as we did with tomatoes, a narrowband spectrum of preferred commercial characteristics that compromise "flavor as a symphony with lots of notes."

In wine today we are experiencing a loss, to greater or lesser degrees depending upon the grape variety, of a "symphony with lots of notes" thanks to a narrowing of clonal diversity and an equal narrowing of the definition of ideal ripeness, which means ever-later picking times. ("We pick each clonal block at optimal ripeness.")

Add to that an increasingly common, if furtive, addition of water to the fermenting juice (called "watering back") to compensate for the dehydration of grapes intentionally picked late and the use of post-fermentation techniques such as spinning cones and reverse osmosis machines to reduce alcohol, and you've got a potent mix of forces.

The combination creates a fine-wine equivalent of a supermarket tomato: perfect, yet soulless and contrived.

Professor Klee himself was dismayed that one of his young students preferred a tasteless supermarket tomato over a flavorful heirloom variety in a tasting panel. “Have we trained a whole generation," he asked, "that doesn’t know what a good tomato is?”

Good question. Can we now ask the same about, say, excessively overripe Cabernet Sauvignons? Or Pinot Noirs composed of just a handful in flavor-intensive clonal selections?

Is a new generation of wine drinkers now being trained to think that mere flavor intensity—the more, the better—is the determinant of quality? And, moreover, that the very word "nuance" is suspect, even illegitimate? Or worse yet, that it's not even understood as a concept? You tell me.

Gregory Smith
Lima, Peru —  February 8, 2017 11:27am ET
Scheurebe is not a hybrid.
Matt Kramer
Portland, Oregon —  February 8, 2017 12:13pm ET
Mr. Smith: The Scheurebe grape was developed in the early 20th-century by Dr. Georg Scheu, who was the director of a viticultural institute in Germany's Rheinhessen region. Scheurebe is, as you correctly point out, a cross rather than a hybrid.

Colloquially, the two terms are used interchangeably. That said, precision is a wonderful thing and, colloquial usage aside, there is a distinct difference between a cross and a hybrid.

As I'm sure you know, a hybrid is a cross between two species, e.g., Vitis vinifera and Vitis labrusca.

A cross, in comparison, is a new variety created by cross-breeding within the same species, i.e., two varieties of the vinifera species.

Scheurebe is a cross between Riesling and another white grape called Bukettrebe or Bukettraube, which is itself a cross between Silvaner and Schiava Grossa. All of these varieties are, to the best of my knowledge, Vitis vinifera.
Thomas Bartlett
Ocean Grove NJ —  February 8, 2017 11:00pm ET
Matt I agree with your article and you have hit upon a core threat to future wine quality. The increasing frequency of overly ripe, prune or raisin tasting CA cab for example is sad. But let us not blame the winemakers. They are after all trying hard to give the people en masse when they want. And they think that powerful intense wines that are deep and rich are fantastic. Blame the buyer not the seller for whatever ends up dominating the market.
But I think there will always be enough people who appreciate subtlety and complexity i.e. a cab that tastes like pie cherries, currents, cassis and blackberries and earth, with three or four waves of flavor, etc. to keep good wines alive. Like music, the loud simple stuff is dominant but Mozart and Dorsey and the Beatles survive and will always be out there for those who appreciate them.
Gary Cohn
California —  February 10, 2017 6:13pm ET
Interesting article. I completely agree with you on tomatoes, but I am not sure I see the correlation to wine. In your example of "excessively overripe Cabernet Sauvignons" or Mr. Bartlett's concurrence of "overly ripe, prune or raisin tasting CA cab", you seem to suggest that these types of wines are creating a generation of drinkers who do not appreciate a good tasting wine. Yet Wine Spectator just named such a wine as Wine of the Year. In the manner in which you and Mr. Bartlett describe big California Cabernets, it seems what you are describing are poorly made wines, and not good examples of that style.
I find plenty of big style Cabernets with finesse, nuance, and waves of flavor, and that surly taste good. I can understand if those wines are not your preference, or you find them boring. The beautiful thing about the wine world today is that there are great wines for everyone's taste and preferences. However, I do not see the tasteless tomato lurking in our midst in the wine world.

Matt Kramer
Portland, Oregon —  February 10, 2017 8:53pm ET
Mr. Cohn: You say: "I find plenty of big style Cabernets with finesse, nuance, and waves of flavor." And how right you are.

You have effectively articulated your own criteria for what makes such "big-style Cabernets" successful or--if your prefer, "good"--namely, "finesse, nuance, and waves of flavor".

The correlation with the tasteless tomato is that neither those who developed the tasteless tomato (university agricultural scientists subsidized by the tomato-growing industry) nor those who sold it to us (supermarkets) cared at all about taste, let alone nuance and finesse. Indeed, they denied that there was anything wrong with the modern tomato.

Yet obviously anyone who knew what a "real" tomato tasted like knew perfectly well that this was patently untrue.

The same lack of concern about "quality" can also apply to fine wine. If qualities such as nuance and finesse are not part of the criteria for "fine wine", well then, we're not going get such wines, are we?

Has this happened yet? I don't think so. Or, if it has, it's occurring side-by-side with what seems to me to be an active advocacy for wines that retain precisely those qualities that prevent them from become a "tasteless tomato".

This is why you are, of course, absolutely correct in saying " The beautiful thing about the wine world today is that there are great wines for everyone's taste and preferences". I agree wholeheartedly.

Allow me to say that it's worth noting that--however high-falutin' this may sound--the key is articulating what qualities are important in fine wine. What we value strongly shapes not only our personal preference, but our judgment about what makes a wine "great".

For me, the tasteless tomato is a cautionary tale. If we don't think about, and discuss, the criteria for what makes a wine--or a tomato--truly "great", then we'll wind up with something contrived and concocted that serves interests and needs that may not be those of what you or I think fine wine should be about.
Thomas Bartlett
Ocean Grove NJ —  February 12, 2017 11:52pm ET
Mr. Cohn, I think we are conflating two distinct categories of modern cabs and other wines. Terms like "big: rich and ripe" apply to many great wines while "overripe, raisny and pruney" apply to a separate group. These are generally lower price wines under $15. They are monolithic in terms of flavors, and low acid with high alcohol. Buyers of such wines usually say they want a "smooth" wine with no bite i.e. no acidity. They represent a large and growing part of wine sales in my large upscale wine store. Perhaps you have not purchased such wines but believe me they are flying off the shelves. Those who like them seem to be unaware that Cab's traditional higher fruit flavors like cherries and raspberries and blackberries are wonderful. Wines can be rich, ripe and deep but still possess the desirable qualities of higher fruits, good acidity, and great complexity. A large portion of today's Cab fans have no experience with such Cabs, and it is difficult to get them to try a different style. .
Kenneth Rupar
Frankfurt Germany —  March 8, 2017 5:37pm ET
I live in Germany. I am often confronted with a plethora of hybrids or crossings, and there seem to be more every day. They are the attempt to guarantee grape growers and wine makers a decent living in a wet climate with a short and unpredictable growing season. It is true we do not see Scheurebe, Kerner, Regent, Dornfelder, and their like among the lists of great wines of the world, but in a wine bar in Mainz or Heidelberg, Würzburg or Baden-Baden, you might be surprised at the tasty beverage with the strange and unfamiliar name in your glass. The point is that every wine does not have to be a great wine to be legit and to be enjoyed. And who knows? - as I understand it, Cabernet Sauvignon is also a cross, and that did not turn out too bad, did it?

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