Spring 2010

[Alumni News]

Recently, Bob Hodgson, retired HSU professor of Oceanography and owner of Fieldbrook Winery in Arcata, caused a stir by publishing a paper about the inconsistency of wine judging. He’s become skeptical, to say the least.

It all began after one of his wines won a gold medal at one competition and nothing at another. He began to wonder about the discrepancies. He carefully designed a study, serving unknowing wine judges at the California State Fair the same wine from the same bottle in different glasses. The judges’ reactions varied, sometimes widely. Hodgson concluded that wine judging is highly subjective and that luck, as much as anything else, plays a major role in winning competitions.

“I found that using the binomial probability distribution model really closely agrees with what’s happening in the real world with wine,” he says. “If you look at the wines entered in five competitions, the number of gold medals can be explained by chance alone. And, if you look at the wines that did win a gold, 98 percent of them got no award or a bronze at another competition. So, obviously, there’s a lot of chance involved.”

Hodgson’s study on wine judging has earned national attention, including a recent article in the Wall Street Journal.

Ironically, the same man whose research is challenging the industry makes some of the best wine to come out of Humboldt County, based on the many awards from the very judges that Hodgson set out to scrutinize.

Hodgson, who grew up in Edmonds, Wash., left a job as a Navy physicist to study at Oregon State University in Corvallis. There, Hodgson met a woman in line at a local seed store. She was buying winemaking supplies and Hodgson struck up a conversation.

“I was kind of eavesdropping and I asked her how much it would cost for my friends and me to start making wine ourselves. She added up some stuff and said, ‘About 75 cents.’ So, I said, ‘I’m in!’ “

Hodgson and his friends made blackberry wine for a few years and were impressed at how easy it was to produce and how tasty it was to drink. Soon, he landed a job with the National Marine Fisheries Service in La Jolla, Calif. A year later he received a call from HSU’s Oceanography Department and was asked to join the faculty. Hodgson accepted the job and moved north with his wife, Judy (who received an HSU Distinguished Alumni Award in 2005 for her work as publisher of the North Coast Journal).

Soon after arriving in Humboldt, he came to know one of the most prominent and, at the time, one of the only winemakers in the county. Hodgson volunteered to tutor a student in math; turns out the student’s father knew a winemaker in Eureka. As he tells it, “We helped out with his operation for a couple of years. And one year I thought, ‘I can do this.’ So, we just started.”

Hodgson started buying grapes from the Napa Valley, bought a small crusher and produced his first commercial wine in 1976. Fieldbrook Winery was born and, small as it was, quickly started producing high quality wines. Hodgson started entering his wines in various competitions during the 1980s and ’90s and started winning. At the 1994 San Francisco International Wine Festival, Hodgson’s 1993 Pacini Vineyard Zinfandel won both a Double Gold Medal and Best of Show – being named the best red wine in the world. Fieldbrook Winery also won numerous medals at the California State Fair and its 1992 Meredith Vineyard Merlot was named the best in the state.

Hodgson’s vinification, or oenology, expertise is built on a discerning palate (although he says his wife’s is more refined) and a thorough understanding of the chemistry of wine. But, he says, his chemistry knowledge wasn’t always so robust.

“When I was a faculty member at HSU, I went to one of the chemistry professors and told him I wanted to sit in on his class,” he says. “The first exam I took, I flunked it and the professor just laughed. But, I ended up finishing freshman chemistry – that’s a tough class. I also took a quantitative analysis class. I wanted to know that when I ran lab work here at the winery that my numbers were good. I thought if I could get the chemistry down then I would be a more confident winemaker.”

Given the chance Hodgson has uncovered in wine tasting, the best judge of his wine may be the individual consumer. So, pick up your favorite varietal the next time you’re shopping in Humboldt or visit the winery’s website, http://www.fieldbrookwinery.com, and judge for yourself.